The sap flows freely in this geezer tearjerker about two terminally ill seniors who bond while sharing a hospital room and decide to spend their last days doing all sorts of extraordinary things before they die. Like virtually all of Rob Reiner’s recent movies, it couldn’t be phonier or more heavy-handed—whatever happened to the guy who could manage something as clever as “This Is Spinal Tap” or as charming as “The Princess Bride”? But because it teams Jack Nicholson, doing his gruff shtick, and Morgan Freeman, doing his ultra-wise routine, it may resonate with audiences ready to fall for some plastic laughter-and-tears uplift, especially viewers old enough to identify with the central characters.
The odd couple set-up has Edward Cole (Nicholson), a billionaire who—among other things—owns a huge chain of for-profit medical centers, and Carter Chambers (Freeman), a car mechanic who gave up his early academic aspirations for family reasons, sharing a spartan room in one of Cole’s establishments. (Cole’s always advertised that for reasons of cost, his hospitals would have no single rooms, and now he’s hoist on his own advertising petard.) Cole’s diagnosis is devastating and his prognosis dire; Chambers is undergoing an experimental regimen that offers only modest hope of success. But though very different, they learn to respect one another during their (very brief) treatment ordeals—the main result of which is to leave Nicholson bald for a time—and hit on the idea of fulfilling an idea espoused by one of Chambers’ old professors, of making a “bucket list” of things you want to do before you die and then actually doing them.
Much of the picture consists of the two men engaging in activities like skydiving and racing cars, as well as visiting famous world sites and the like—during which their symptoms seem, rather implausibly, almost to vanish—although there’s an attempt to add some family issues in terms of the objections of Carter’s wife (Beverly Todd) about his choice to go off with his new buddy, and the pressure Carter puts on the much-married, cynical Cole to reconnect with the daughter from whom he’s long been estranged. But the real issue that the men’s quest raises is how self-centered their choices are, not only with respect to their families but the wider society. Are these really the kinds of things one ought to be obsessing about as death approaches and you have the opportunity to do some real good in the world before you leave it?
Then there are the characterizations of the two men themselves. Cole is pretty much hand-tailored for Nicholson’s patented smirks, arched eyebrows and casually dismissive line delivery, and he goes through the repertoire without breaking a sweat. He’s less successful in the soapoperatic interludes, when a twinkle in his eye indicates he doesn’t really believe in this guff. Freeman again applies his Voice of God shtick to a common but wise guy who has virtually no flaws (except, of course, for smoking—which is by implication his physical downfall). But the writing does him no favors by trotting out one of the dumbest of all writing conventions to give Chambers “character”: as a would-be academic, he’s spent his life learning facts about everything that he spouts like some soothing robot. What would be an extraordinarily irritating habit in real life isn’t played for laughs here, as it was in the recent French comedy “My Best Friend,” or more scathingly in Bryan Forbes’ woefully under-recognized 1966 farce “The Wrong Box,” where Ralph Richardson took the implications of such a person to their horrifyingly funny logical extreme.
“The Bucket List” is pretty much a two-hander, and the supporting cast leaves little impression. Sean Hayes doesn’t do much with the part of Cole’s factotum, who’s cheerfully demeaned by his employer at every opportunity, nor does Rob Morrow make any substantial mark as the wealthy man’s doctor. Todd is wasted as well. That’s mostly the fault of Justin Zackham’s single-minded screenplay, but blame must also be allotted to Reiner, whose direction seems to have descended to the level of turning on the camera and giving his stars free rein. Production values are okay, though the process shots of the guys’ journeys are no more convincing than the dramaturgy, and Marc Shaiman’s music pulls the expected strings with an insistence one might object to if it weren’t so much in tune with the attitude of the entire enterprise.
One could spend an evening coming up with derisive jibes based on the movie’s title. Suffice it to say that unless you’re a sucker for the sort of sentimental twaddle that’s become Rob Reiner’s forte, you should cross “The Bucket List” off yours.