, 97 min, 2007
Director: Rob Reiner
Writer: Justin Zackham
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes
Here is a film that means well and trips head over foot on its own eagerness to please. Rob Reiner’s The Bucket List is a tearjerker, not without a scintilla of attempts at humor, that exists in some Hollywood-generated alternate universe where things that are impossible not only can and do happen, but where we’re meant to be comforted by their improbable success. It ultimately feels just a bit too much like a well-oiled machine, and not enough like it comes from the heart; it’s more like it took a detour through a few too many rewrites on its way through the chest cavity of sincerity.
As the film opens, Carter (Morgan Freeman), an elderly black mechanic with extensive knowledge of the answers on Jeopardy, tells us all about the death of his friend Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson), and my first thought is: Here’s yet another movie with Freeman narrating, and another in the subgenre of black men helping aging white people find peace, among other things; many of these films appear to star Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, Driving Miss Daisy, Million Dollar Baby). Seems Edward is a successful entrepreneur who owns a chain of hospitals. It is with irony then (or contrivance) that he will soon be bed-ridden in one of his own hospital rooms, in the somewhat early stages of cancer, and that Carter will be his roommate, in the same boat. It takes about the first third of this 97-minute slog to introduce these two guys to us and each other before the title’s relevance (which is in the trailer) kicks in: they’ll put together a “bucket list” of things they want to do before they “kick the bucket” (“Cutesy,” quips Edward). They’ll travel the world, try things they never experienced but always wanted to, and live out their last weeks in total freedom.
Nice idea, no? All against the advice of Carter’s nursing veteran wife Virginia (Beverly Todd), and with no input from the young doctor (Rob Morrow) or Edward’s mildly acid-tongued (and, we sense, long-suffering) assistant, whom he calls Tommy (Sean Hayes), but whose actual name is Matthew, incidentally. Along the way, they’ll touch on all the biggies: faith in God (or Edward’s lack thereof), marriage (Edward’s many failed ones), the regrets of absentee fathering (Edward’s again), and the “meaning of it all.”
What makes this movie, if anything does, are the performances by Nicholson and Freeman; they have such gravitas that they never completely drown in any form of dreck. Freeman has that elegance and majesty that he brings to every role where he’s playing a wise old black man aiding a stupid old white dude (remember, he played God…twice!). Nicholson has an ability to play a smarmy, cranky old codger without ever totally losing his charm or humor – even when the script doesn’t afford him any; indeed, here he seems to be somewhat channeling his memorable jerk from James L. Brooks’ “As Good As It Gets” (1997). I even kind of liked Sean Hayes as the assistant, who never precisely catches fire as it were, but manages to get a decent one-liner or two in under the radar.
The film, directed by Rob Reiner, comes from a screenplay by Justin Zackham. I know nothing of these men apart from their work; in particular, Reiner has been hit-and-miss as a director, to say the least (particularly this decade), ranging from the huge successes of This is Spinal Tap (1984), The Princess Bride (1987) and The American President (1995), through medium level entertainments like Rumor Has It… (2005), to the dismal lows of Alex & Emma (2003), The Story of Us (1999) and North (1994). I do know that (on the basis of this film), these men know nothing of the realities of cancer; it’s the Ali McGraw syndrome of looking (and feeling) better the sicker they get.
This story may be heart-warming and uplifting and inspirational and all that jazz, however, call me a hard-hearted cynic if you must, but the film exists in some sort of cruelly misleading void where the fact is that these two men, with their particular diagnoses of cancer, could not possibly do, in any way, shape or form, what they do, no matter how many kemotherapy treatments they’ve had. But isn’t it nice to daydream?