MRR Review: "The Ultimate Life"

Photo Credit: High Top Releasing

MRR Review: "The Ultimate Life"

Rating: PG (brief battle scene and mild thematic elements)
Length: 108 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 6, 2013
Directed by: Michael Landon Jr.
Genre: Drama

"The Ultimate Life" is the sequel to the 2006 DVD hit "The Ultimate Gift," in which James Garner played Red Stevens, an oil baron who had a frosty relationship with his grandson Jason. Instead of bequeathing him billions of dollars after he died, he instead wrote his will to give Jason a series of tests that would force him to grow up and not rely on money for happiness. The story centered on Jason and his individual path to redemption, but "The Ultimate Life" goes back in time to mostly tell the story of Red, who is played here by Austin James as a child and Drew Waters as an adult.

Red worked his whole life on cattle farms but wasn't satisfied with the humble life of a ranch hand. He was obsessed with money and success, vowing he would become a millionaire one day. He actually exceeded that expectation to become a billionaire—due to a little luck and a lot of hard work in the oil business. He married and had four children, but he didn't really seem to relate to his wife or kids because nearly every waking hour was spent trying to amass more wealth instead of taking some time off to enjoy the fruits of his labor. One Christmas morning, Red realizes that he is virtually a stranger to his family, which is not how he had wanted to live his life. It's at this time he goes about writing down the principles for a happy life, which will later be given to Jason at the beginning of "The Ultimate Gift."

The flashbacks are framed by the present-day situation of Jason (Logan Bartholomew replaces Drew Fuller from the first film), who found the love of his life, Alexia (Ali Hillis), in the first film. Unfortunately, after Jason took over the philanthropic foundation that Red founded, he became a workaholic, virtually ignoring Alexia. Sensing his distance, she decides to take a six-month job at a cancer clinic in Haiti. It is during this time that Jason reads up on Red's background, learning the lessons his grandfather left behind. Will he be able to integrate these valuable lessons into his life and win Alexia back, or will it be too late?

The film was made on an estimated budget of just over $3 million, which is a paltry amount by today's big budget standards. The problem with such a small budget on a production such as "The Ultimate Life" is that the movie is set over several decades, so there is a big need for period costumes and backdrops. Those things all cost money, so when faced with a miniscule budget, some sacrifices must be made. Occasionally the period costumes look a little too new or out of place, but thankfully, it doesn't detract from the actual plot, which is the main reason for watching the film. The fact that such aged luminaries like Peter Fonda, James Garner, and Lee Meriwether were signed for the film (albeit in small roles) speaks to just how much director Michael Landon Jr. can make his budget work. The eagle on each dollar bill must have been screaming from being stretched so much, but somehow it all works.

Co-writer Brian Bird is a frequent collaborator with Landon, and together they co-own Believe Pictures, a production company that specializes in faith-based content. Though religion doesn't play a huge role in the film, Christian values are very much front and center in the plot. There is nary a curse word or love scene in the film, and all the characters, even when they are flailing in life, are good people. In staying with its faith-based filmmaking roots, the film got a PG rating, and it probably could have earned a G rating if it wasn't for a mildly violent flashback scene. Parents can take their children to see "The Ultimate Life" without any worries about questionable content or bad elements because there simply aren't any in the film.

As with most films of this ilk, the protagonist learns a valuable lesson by the end of the film, so there is a predictably happy ending. The lack of big plot twists or turns means any viewer paying attention will see the ending coming a mile away. However, the ending isn't actually the point of the film; the journey is. It is the discovery of how Red came to be the philanthropic billionaire that he was before he died. In fact, the film could succeed without Jason or any of the present-day characters. Bird and his co-writers manage to fit them in seamlessly though, so that "The Ultimate Life" becomes more than just a basic rags-to-riches story.

Rating: 3 out of 5