By Terry Mattingly - Scripps Howard News Service
As a rule, movie producers do not enjoy seeing America's most influential newspaper crucify their films.
"Reeking of self-righteousness and moral reprimand," spat Jeanette Catsoulis of the New York Times, a movie titled The Ultimate Gift could be considered "a hairball of good-for-you filmmaking coughed up by 20th Century Fox's new faith-based label, Fox Faith."
Wait, there's more, because this "cinematic sermon" makes sure that its "messages -- pro-poverty, anti-abortion -- are methodically hammered home."
There were other reviews, good and bad. Still, the nastiness in strategic corners of the media caught veteran producer Rick Eldridge off guard, in large part because he thought that he was producing a mainstream movie, with mainstream talent, that was going to have a chance to reach a thoroughly mainstream audience.
What he didn't count on was getting stuck with two dangerous labels -- "Fox" and "Faith." Those words can turn your average media insider into a pillar of salt.
That's what happened to "The Ultimate Gift," turning this quiet cinematic fable into a cautionary tale for others who want to make movies that can appeal to viewers in Middle America, including folks who frequent sanctuary pews.
"I really felt this story had strong values that would hit home with the general market," said Eldridge, who is now pushing to promote the DVD of his movie. "I thought this was a moral-message film, but I was determined to make a movie that would speak to a wide spectrum of people. ... Then we got pigeon-holed into this little 'Christian' niche that really limited who would get much of a chance to see this movie."
The pivotal moment was when this 20th Century Fox project was moved to the new Fox Faith division, which meant "The Ultimate Gift" was sent to theaters with all kinds of faith-based strings attached. As the Fox Faith Web site bluntly stated: "To be part of Fox Faith, a movie has to have overt Christian content or be derived from the work of a Christian author."
Thus, mainstream critics were determined to find the moral messages and make sure potential moviegoers were warned in advance. This also meant that mainstream performers such as Academy Award nominee James Garner, veteran character actor Brian Dennehy and the young actress Abigail Breslin of "Little Miss Sunshine" discovered that they were -- surprise, surprise -- starring in a "Christian movie."
Crucial scenes were, as a result, seen through this lens.
The movie opens at the funeral of Howard "Red" Stevens, an oil tycoon who left behind both an impressive portfolio of good deeds and a bitterly divided family. The minister at the graveside, in addition to reading scripture, quotes the famous British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge as saying, "Every happening, great or small, is a miracle by which God speaks to us and the art of life is to get the message."
At another pivotal moment, the prodigal grandson whose coming-of-age story drives the plot is shown in a Catholic hospital chapel, consoling a leukemia patient. The girl is thinking about butterflies, heaven and her stressed-out single mother's future -- while facing a large statue of Jesus with his arms open wide. "I don't know much about God or Jesus, but I can promise that those arms are meant for you," says the young man.
But the statement that upset critics the most is offered by the young mother, as she describes their struggles after the girl's father abandoned them. The one thing she knows for certain, she says, is that her daughter Emily is the "best decision I ever made."
There is no need to deny that the movie contains religious and moral themes, said Eldridge. But for generations, Hollywood executives made successful mainstream movies that contained these kinds of words and images. These movies were aimed at a broad, mainstream market, not a narrow, political, sectarian, "Christian" niche.
"I told the Fox people this movie was going to resonate with the Christian audience and that's fine with me, because I am a Christian," said Eldridge. "But I was worried that this movie would get tagged as a little 'Christian' movie, like that was some kind of Good Housekeeping seal for the Christian marketplace. ...
"I think it's obvious that this is what happened and that caused some people to distance themselves from this movie. There was no need for that to happen."