Directed by: Rob Reiner
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes, Beverly Todd, Rob Morrow
Almost certain to be a crowd pleaser—especially with the 55-plus audience at which it’s aimed with all the tact of one of those AARP mailings that begin with “Dear Senior Citizen”—Rob Reiner’s The Bucket List is nonetheless one of the most contrived, formula-ridden, shamelessly manipulative explosions of stacked-deck writing, star-indulgent schmaltz it’s ever been my lot to suffer through. Everything about it is as tiresomely phony as the Polident-ad grins on Messrs. Nicholson and Freeman festooning the movie’s posters. Worse, it confirms one of my greatest fears: that Morgan Freeman is fully capable of narrating movies from beyond the grave.
Don’t get me wrong, both Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman are fine actors capable of doing great things on the screen. Unfortunately, neither have had occasion to do so of late, being largely stuck in the rut of Mephistopheles Jack and wiser-than-God (except when he’s actually playing God) Morgan. This is more of the same with bells on.
The high-concept premise—courtesy of screenwriter Justin Zackham (the last syllable of his name has great meaning here)—finds self-absorbed, filthy rich, hedonistic businessman Edward Cole (Nicholson) falling prey to his company’s own rules about his hospitals: two beds in each room, no exceptions. So when brain cancer comes a-calling, Edward finds himself bunking with another cancer patient, Carter Chambers (Freeman), a wise old auto mechanic with a stockpile of useless information for anyone but Jeopardy contestants and Trivial Pursuit addicts.
Screenwriting 101 dictates that they won’t like each other, and they don’t (Edward offensively dubs Carter “zombie boy” for no explicable reason). This, of course, merely paves the way to a curmudgeonly friendship—let’s call it gruff love—that finds full flower in Edward’s decision to play fairy grim reaper and help his working-stiff buddy complete his “bucket list.” The “bucket list,” you see, is something Carter’s “old philosophy professor” cooked up—a list of things you want to do before you kick the bucket. (With professors like this, it’s clear why Carter spent his life fixing cars and talking back at Alex Trebek.) With precious little concern over deserting his wife (Beverly Todd, Crash) and family, Carter heads off on this quasi-spiritual road trip with his well-heeled buddy—kind of like Bing and Bob on life support without Dotty Lamour.
The list itself is an uninspired concoction of the relatively mundane—racing muscle cars, skydiving, seeing the Taj Mahal etc.—and the pretentiously vague—“laugh till you cry,” “witness something truly majestic” etc. All of these are easily within the grasp of anyone with the wherewithal to have the CGI folks paste our heroes’ heads on real skydivers or position them in front of a barely credible computer-generated Taj Mahal. None of the events are particularly convincing as either actual occurrences or life-altering ones. The latter, one supposes, is meant to be conveyed by the Morgan Freeman words of avuncular wisdom (patent pending). Of course, it’s all meant to lead to enlightenment and those life lessons so beloved by Hollywood in high-minded mode.
The film is geared to the forced humanization of the Edward Cole character after a “big” falling-out scene (where Nicholson sounds alarmingly like Sylvester the Cat) that will pave the way for Edward finally realizing what the “important things” in life really are and that they have no price tag. It’s a pretty strange conclusion for a movie that completely hinges on ol’ Ed having more money than God, but we’re not supposed to notice that. And anyway, Edward’s largesse earns him remission for his sins (‘fess up, Mr. Zackham, you really like the ending of the 1932 If I Had a Million, don’t you?) and a higher coffee can in heaven. I’m fully aware that a lot of people will eat this movie up and ask for seconds, but all I see is contrivance, typical ham-handed Rob Reiner direction and two good actors drowning in treacle. Rated PG-13 for language, including a sexual reference.