Just die, already!
Two old pros do their best with meager material in The Bucket List, a film that feels a little like a rejected script for some hospital TV show like Grey’s Anatomy or ER. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman elevate this movie to near-miss status, almost making it worthwhile. It’s a goofy, mushy, implausible, almost fun movie that strains with the sentiment. Director Rob Reiner, who hasn’t made a decent movie in a good long while, comes close this time, but only because the talent he’s cast has the ability to work the material.
Suffering the advanced stages of cancer, a couple of aging men wind up in the same hospital room. Nicholson, predictably, plays the more cantankerous of the two. He’s Edward Cole, the super-rich owner of the hospital, forced to share a room with another patient due to his own “two for every room” cost-cutting idea. Freeman plays mild-mannered Carter Chambers, auto mechanic and trivia master. Both are considered terminal and are given mere months to live.
To pass the time lying in his hospital bed, Carter is scribbling something he calls a “bucket list” on a yellow pad while Edward consumes and vomits various delicacies. The bucket list is an assortment of things Carter wishes he could do before his dying day, or “kicking the bucket.” Edward rescues the crumpled paper from the floor and decides it’s a good idea, but it needs a little rewriting. He revises it with some of his own ideas ("Get a tattoo!") and suggests they actually go out and do the list. So, the two leave the hospital and with the help of Edward’s big money, start globetrotting, much to the chagrin of Carter’s wife.
In a particularly embarrassing scene, the dying duo go skydiving. They visit pyramids, majestic mountains and drive sports cars, trying to make the most of their dwindling days. All of this is outlandish, mainly because two guys who were at death’s door are suddenly as effervescent as teenagers. Nicholson’s Edward, for instance, screams like a banshee when he jumps from a plane, singing songs and ribbing Carter. That’s pretty good for a guy with lungs full of cancer. Sorry, but stuff like that drives me nuts.
The two get along for a while but, inevitably, problems arise and feuds take place. Reiner offers up a trick ending that feels false, and that’s what seals the deal on this one missing the mark.
Some of this has a low grade, sitcom feel to it. That’s due in part to the cardboard script, but it doesn’t help that Reiner casts the likes of Rob Morrow (Northern Exposure) and Sean Hayes (Will & Grace) in supporting roles. Both actors are capable of good things, but Justin Zackham’s script is more worthy of their TV days than a Jack Nicholson vehicle.
Nicholson, following in the footsteps of pioneers like Sigourney Weaver and Timothy Olyphant, shaved his head clean bald for this role. Edward is pretty much a rehash of past Nicholson roles like As Good As It Gets and About Schmidt (miserable bastards who are somehow likeable). Freeman is always such a pleasure to watch. He has one of Hollywood’s best high-wattage smiles, and he puts it to good use. He provides a good sensible balance for Nicholson’s nut-ball. It’s too bad they couldn’t go to work on something a little less contrived.
There’s a lot to like about this movie. It is, indeed, often a treat to see these two actors sharing the screen. Watching this film is far from a bad thing. It’s just not very good. If you’re a big Nicholson or Freeman fan, you could do a lot worse. Considering how bad January cinema usually is, this is actually high-grade stuff.