Bucket List, The (United States, 2007)
Lately, it seems every time I review a Rob Reiner movie, I lament the fall this once reliable filmmaker has taken. Admittedly, Reiner started at such a pinnacle that there was nowhere to go but down, but it's beyond consideration that the director of The Princess Bride and This Is Spinal Tap would be responsible for the likes of Rumor Has It. Thankfully, while The Bucket List doesn't return Reiner to the top of his game, it at least elevates him to the level of respectability. The overly melodramatic yet life-affirming screenplay is in part redeemed by the solid performances and easy camaraderie of the two veteran stars. This is one of those (rare) occasions when I was able to tune down the cynicism and enjoy it on its own terms, even if there was a war at the end between my tear ducts and my gag reflex. Frank Capra would have been at home here. (His grandson is listed as a co-producer.)
Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) and Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) are both afflicted with terminal cancer. Edward is a wealthy CEO with no one to visit him except his assistant (Sean Hayes) as he suffers through chemotherapy. Carter is a car mechanic who is surrounded by his wife of 47 years, Virginia (Beverly Todd) and his two sons and daughter. In addition to sharing a room at the hospital, the men share a diagnosis: six months to a year. They make a mutual pact not to waste that time. They create a "bucket list" - a series of things to see and do before they die. Edward's wealth makes all things possible, so they are soon jetting off to see the Pyramids of Egypt, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Wall of China, among other places. They go skydiving and drive race cars and search for the perfect woman. In the end, however, it's the little personal things that mean more to both men.
The movie is essentially about these two unlikely individuals forming a friendship, bound together as they are by the most forceful bond imaginable - the immediacy of their deaths. Their conversations vary from the inconsequential to the big issues. They discuss God, faith, and religion, and Edward dismisses the idea of reincarnation because he can't figure out what a snail could accomplish to gain a next-life promotion. Writer Justin Zackham may have been trying to uncover some universal truth but, if that's the case, he doesn't succeed. The "profundities" uttered by the men are far from earthshattering or though-provoking.
While the circumstances of these men are extraordinary (how many dying people get to fulfill all their wishes?), the grounded presences of Nicholson and Freeman keep things interesting. Beneath all the continent-hopping, we see two genuine characters emerge: men who, despite their odyssey, are frightened by what the future may or may not hold and are trying to come to grips with the enormity of what faces them. While there are moments when Nicholson lapses into Nicholson mode, there are also plenty of scenes in which he plays the role straight, with uncertainty replacing machismo. Freeman, as always, embodies his character. Both Edward and Carter undergo emotional journeys that occur separately yet in parallel with their physical ones. The film's ending, which is the continuation of a bookend that begins with the first scene, offers closure. There's enough humor sprinkled throughout to keep the movie from overdosing on its own sense of seriousness.
The Bucket List is a simple movie. It's a travelogue and a road film that offers a little deeper emotional resonance than many similar films. This is obviously designed to be an Oscar calling card for both Freeman and Nicholson, although it's unclear whether either of them will make the cut. Their performances are strong and their name recognition will help, but this is a crowded field. (Nicholson is good, but I wouldn't take a slot away from Philip Seymour Hoffman for him.) The Bucket List is sentimental but it's not so phony that one will be embarrassed to shed a tear or two at the end. The movie's sincerity helps it get over some of the most difficult hurdles and the feeling after leaving theater is one of having experienced something worthwhile albeit unremarkable.
Bucket List, The (United States, 2007)
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes, Beverly Todd, Rob Morrow
Screenplay: Justin Zackham
Cinematography: John Schwartzman
Music: Marc Shaiman
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers