“The Ultimate Life,” a sequel to 2006’s “The Ultimate Gift,” is a milder-than-mild-mannered film about priorities, personal legacies and the joys of giving.
But before we can get to that very simple point, we’re treated to a lengthy, faith-based version of “Giant,” the Rock Hudson / Liz Taylor / James Dean saga of wealth and the strain of achieving it.
Red Stevens (James Garner) is a rich old oil billionaire who left his life’s work, the foundation he built out of his great wealth, to his grandson. But Jason (Logan Bartholomew) is so caught up in running it that he can’t see the charity-minded doctor and love of his life (Ali Hillis) slipping away from him. She heads to Haiti to do some good, so the old man’s lawyer (Bill Cobbs) gives the kid Red’s diary. And we see –through a looooong flashback — the poverty Red came from, the vow he made to “become a billionaire, just like Andrew Carnegie.”
That flashback is the heart of Michael Landon Jr.’s movie, based on the Jim Stovall novel.
Red, riding the rails with an unnamed hobo in the 1940s, learns about counting his gifts each day — the gift of family, the gift of friendship, the gift of gratitude, etc.
Red ages from his teens (Austin James) through adulthood (Drew Waters), working on ranches, fighting in Italy in World War II, coming home to marry his high school sweetheart (Abigail Mavity, later Elizabeth Ann Bennett). It takes him 25 years to make his fortune, and a few short days around Christmas 1969 to realize that this isn’t what life is all about. Somehow, he remembers that hobo’s habit — counting those gifts.
Aside from landing such semi-retired luminaries as Garner, Lee Meriwether, Cobbs and Peter Fonda (playing a rancher), the marvel here is Landon’s ability to do a reasonably convincing period piece on a tiny budget. The period detail — clothes, cars, even Italian combat in what looks like the pine hills of Georgia or Louisiana — is pretty good even if this world looks too scrubbed and painted (restored and spotless antique trucks and cars, even the military ones) to be lived in.
The homilies — “Everybody in this world needs someone to believe in them” — work better than the feeble attempts at humor.
The first film had more of a quest feel to it as a young ingrate Jason (re-cast here) was forced on a journey to learn the life lessons. The 90-minute flashback used here robs the story of its mystery and momentum. There’s no sense of the stakes, no urgency to the proceedings.
The performers are more competent than compelling, a common failing of faith-based films. Blame the edge-free, freshly-scrubbed characters that they play.
Sadly, even as a safe-for-seniors saga ready-made for The Hallmark Channel, this is pretty thin gruel.
THE ULTIMATE LIFE
Cast: James Garner, Drew Waters, Logan Bartholomew, Ali Hillis, Elizabeth Ann Bennett. Bill Cobbs, Peter Fonda
Directed by Michael Landon Jr., written by Lisa G. Shillingburg and Brian Bird, based on the Jim Stovall book. A High Top Releasing film.
Running time: 1:48
MPAA rating: PG for a brief battle scene and mild thematic elements