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At The Movies: Jesus Has a Starring Role: The Ultimate Gift ** 1/2

After The Passion of the Christ struck such a chord with the American heartland, to the tune of $370 million, some studios rushed to take advantage of the obvious untapped potential of the believers out there who have come to feel marginalized or ghettoized for their conservative, conventional beliefs.

Well, that’s an elitist’s take, anyway. Another way to look at it is that there are hundreds of millions of Americans who can’t go to the movies anymore without being bombarded with sex, drugs, violence and rock and roll. Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned, wholesome family entertainment? Remember the kind of movies Frank Capra used to make? Well, Fox Faith is here to step in and kindly take those well-meaning dollars that would otherwise go into a savings bond or the church kitty.

Fox Faith is mostly untested, but this week The Ultimate Gift will roll out, starring James Garner, Brian Dennehy and child star du jour, Abigail Breslin, fresh off of her Oscar nomination. How Americans respond to this mostly feel-good tale of redemption will determine Fox Faith’s future.

The Ultimate Gift is an unexpectedly moving story that has its heart in the right place. It revolves around a petulant, rich young man, Jason Stevens (Drew Fuller), in line for a big payout when his billionaire grandfather (Garner) dies. But rather than giving over one penny to the oil rich family, the grandfather opts instead to direct his grandson through a series of experiences, or challenges, that will either make him or break him. First, he loses everything. He loses his money, which means his girlfriend and friends drop like flies. But just as he’s hitting rock bottom, he meets a young single mother (Ali Hillis) whose daughter (Breslin) is dying of cancer.

Whining about losing your trust fund and your gold digger girlfriend is nothing when you come up against something like a child battling cancer and the mounting medical bills the mother can’t pay. It is through the two of them that Stevens (who might as well be George Bailey, who are we kidding?) figures out part of what it means to suffer. He learns the rest of it when he is sent off on a wild goose chase to Mexico where he discovers the mysteries of his father’s death.

It does indeed turn out to be a wonderful life because, as you could easily guess, the grandfather teaches the grandson how to be a good person, something he never would have known otherwise, not living in a world of credit cards with no credit limits, penthouse apartments and yes men.

It is hard to hate The Ultimate Gift, and the reason is partly Breslin. For the same reasons Little Miss Sunshine was hard to hate, the idea of this plucky little girl maneuvering her way through hardship is enough to make anyone go soft. Even as Jesus makes a symbolic appearance at a particularly difficult time, if you aren’t beating your head against the wall, you’ll find yourself entertained the old-fashioned way.

Breslin is better in this part, where her real sass is allowed to burrow through her cutesy moon face. She also has to do a little bit more than she does in Sunshine, like facing down a life-threatening illness. Garner, Dennehy, and Lee Meriwether function well within the squeaky clean, conservative setting; this is a movie even Dr. Laura would love. Jesus front and center, wholesome characters (minus one unwed mother), worthwhile message – what’s not to love?

It’s now officially up to Fox Faith to bring back those who long ago turned away from the Sodom and Gomorrah of Hollywood. We’ll soon find out if they are the majority or the fringe.

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