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Bucket List, The (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 11 January 2008
Rob Reiner needs a hit; it’s likely “The Bucket List” will be one, though it doesn’t deserve to be. It wants to be profoundly moving, but is only modestly touching. It wants its two lead actors, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, to be sure-fire Oscar nominees, but their performances are nothing new for either man. Sure, they’re charming and likeable, but that’s because the actors are, not because the characters please us. They’re rather thinly drawn; we know everything we need to about their personalities after they’ve been on screen five minutes. Each, of course, gains a few important Life Lessons over the course of the story, but that’s the kind of film this is; the lessons they learn are imposed on the story, not organic to the events.

The movie opens with scenes of a lone climber, swaddled in sub-zero protective gear, making his way up a snowy mountain; we can’t see who it is. Morgan Freeman, who occasionally narrates, tells us of the worthy death of Edward Cole.

Skipping back in time, we meet Carter Chambers (Freeman), a garage mechanic; when we first see him, he’s blatantly smoking a cigarette; there’s nothing casual about it. We know he’s dying of cancer even before he gets a phone call informing him that he’s in real trouble.

We also meet Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson), richer than Scrooge McDuck, a sharp-tongued, crabby old tycoon who, among other enterprises, owns a passle of hospitals. He’s followed about by factotum Thomas (Sean Hayes), always there with whatever’s needed and a wry smile at Cole’s insults. Cole is also diagnosed with cancer, and—in the first of several unlikely plot contrivances—is placed in the other bed in Carter’s room. Cole is trapped by his own command that all of his hospital rooms feature two beds, no exceptions. It’s unlikely to the brink of impossible that a man this rich wouldn’t be given the private room in his own hospital that he tries to demand.

Carter is initially sardonically wary of his crabby roommate, Cole is initially dismissive of Carter, but we know these two will end up friends. In a showy touch, Nicholson’s head is shaved as part of his treatment (he was bald on last year’s Oscar broadcast), but what’s the point? He swiftly regrows all the hair that was removed. He briefly looks like Buddha or maybe Sidney Greenstreet, but soon looks like good ol’ Jack once again.
Carter’s wife Virginia (Beverly Todd), by a wonderful coincidence a nurse herself (but that turns out to have no plot function), is of course worried about her husband. He wanted to be a history professor—to demonstrate his wealth of knowledge, he answers “Jeopardy” questions before the contestants—but when Virginia got pregnant, he had to drop out of college to care for his growing family. He’s somewhat distant from his son Roger (Freeman’s real son Alfonso), resentful and a shade bitter that now his life is ending, he never really had a chance to live it. One day, he begins preparing his “Bucket List” which, he tells Cole, is a list of things he wants to do before he kicks the bucket.

Cole has now been through several operations and, like Carter, has been told he only has six months to live. “A year, if we’re lucky,” says his bland doctor (Rob Morrow) in doctorspeak. So Cole becomes interested in the bucket list; he thinks Carter’s choices (to see something magnificent, to drive a Shelby) are wimpy, so he adds a few photogenic ideas of his own: skydiving, hunting a big cat, kissing the most beautiful girl in the world.

And then he insists on setting forth to do those things on the list, and talks Carter into accompanying him. Cole is rich enough to pay for both of them—and Thomas—to fly around the world in a private jet. It looks like Nicholson and Freeman actually did go to India to see the Taj Mahal, but most of their other international jaunts are studio scenes with CGI backdrops. The skydiving routine too obviously uses computer graphics to paste their faces onto the heads of stunt doubles. Reiner isn’t clever enough with cutting and camera angles to convince us the two actors are in those Mustang Shelbys roaring around a race track.

Somewhere within this premise a good idea struggles to manifest itself, but this is the first produced screenplay by Justin Zackham, and he has a lot to learn. He claims to have written the script in two weeks and, unfortunately, it looks like it. The setup is very mechanical, very artificial—it has to get a squillionaire into the same hospital room as a Regular Guy, which is unlikely to begin with. After they’ve each been given six months to live and set out on their round-the-world jaunt, neither Nicholson nor Freeman looks even slightly sick. They must have one of those rare, movie-of-the-week cancers that leave the victims hale and hearty until the very last moment.

The movie rests on one contrivance after another. How can Cole so easily talk Carter into abandoning his family, even if temporarily, to set off on the bucket list journey? Cole denies he has any children, but later admits he has a daughter, but they haven’t spoken in years. This idea exists only to be set straight by Carter, of course. We certainly don’t get to know the daughter or what her complaints about her father might be. Similarly, the slight estrangement between Freeman and his wife (and family) exists only for Cole to set straight. Mechanically, the movie marches down these narrow, pre-determined paths.

Freeman and Nicholson are both powerhouse actors, though very different in style. Freeman is quiet, convincingly realistic, and holds the screen through his cool, appraising gaze and understated but specific movements. Nicholson is almost always bigger than life; it’s entirely appropriate here—that’s the kind of guy the tycoon is—but it’s difficult to accept the premise that this is anyone other than Jack Nicholson himself.

Freeman is again the Saintly Black Man helping out a troubled white man, the perfect best friend who could never be a rival, as in “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Million Dollar Baby” and other Freeman movies. He’s always good, always a welcome sight, but I sure the heck wish he’d play a volcanically bad-tempered villain someday. This guy can do anything; it’s unfortunate he’s too often asked to do the same things.

Still, he and Nicholson are the primary reasons to see the movie; even with lesser material, such as this, they’re great fun to watch, but I wish there had been one scene in which Freeman became furious at Nicholson—of course there are a couple of scenes with Nicholson furious at Freeman, that was inevitable.

Sean Hayes’ role could have been the source of a lot of well-placed humor, but this talented actor isn’t given enough material to work with. He’s there to make things happen—arranging for Cole and Carter to tick off entries on the bucket list—and isn’t really a character at all. Thomas is so bland he might as well not have had any lines. Much the same is true of Morrow, who plays his few scenes with mildly raised eyebrows and little more.

Like every disease-of-the-week story, “The Bucket List” is a strong endorsement of life—but when have you seen movies endorse death? Nicholson and Freeman are fun, but that’s because the actors are, not because their characters have any life of their own. Still, this is largely sure-fire stuff for most audiences who will, as usual, regard the film by how the last few scenes made them feel. And that’s when Reiner and Zackman go for broke. They play a questionable narrative trick, but for many people, it’s going to work exactly as intended. As planned, the last few scenes will rouse some tears, and audiences loved to be moved that much.

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