Directed by Rob Reiner (2005’s Rumor Has It), The Bucket List is a classic example of how a film can take a fine premise, and not only not live up to its full potential, but sink into the pits of mediocrity. The movie is a mixed bag, filled with two good performances from two of the finest actors (Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman) to ever grace the screen. However, the screenplay they have to work with is below their talents. Whenever the movie should be soaring as these actors are at the top of their game, it is pent-up by writer Justin Zackham’s saccharine script, and only scratches the surface of what it could accomplish. This is not a bad film but it’s not a smart one either. It’s innocuous and easy enough to sit through but also instantly forgettable.
So what’s the first sign of cliches in The Bucket List? Right off the bat, we get another narrated beginning from Morgan Freeman. Does the guy honestly have to narrate every movie he’s in? This may appear to a director as a good way to shortcut some scenes but the technique is rapidly getting worn out; almost to the point where I don’t even care to watch a masterpiece like The Shawshank Redemption. The film centers around two terminally ill men, Edward Cole (Nicholson) and Carter Chambers (Freeman). Edward is a smug, sullen billionaire owner of a hospital chain, including the one he is laid up in, while Carter is an affable, smart aleck, know-it-all mechanic. The two stay in the same hospital room as they are treated for cancer, and are then told that they each have less than a year to live. So Carter makes what he calls a bucket list, a list of everything he wants to do in his life before he dies, and Edward, now with a bunch of money to waste, decides to tag along and pay for all expenses.
So the two old geezers travel around the world to see all of its wonders (the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, etc.) and Nicholson and Freeman are having a great time playing off one another. But unfortunately all of this is just there to shield the audience from realizing the vacuous, slipshod writing on display. While I would love to forgive this flaw for the sole reason of enjoying Nicholson and Freeman working together, I can’t.
First of all, Edward is just an old bastard who doesn’t really like anyone so why is it he almost immediately takes to liking his roommate, Carter? This makes the goad that is the bucket list seem contrived and forced. Most of the adventures they make seem too absurd for men in their condition to attempt. They also appear to be pretty healthy as they are having the time of their lives and we are only reminded that they do have cancer when the plot deems it appropriate; for example, the plot point that sends us into the chintzy, profusely sentimental denouement in which a wave of catharsis is released upon us. Writer Zackham also bypassed a golden opportunity in having a scene with Edward and his estranged daughter but instead the reunition is overshadowed by the cliched eulogy played to uplifting music.
Nicholson and Freeman make a wonderful duo and it’s a shame they’re not in a better movie. On the contrary, they saved what could have been a disaster, had their roles fallen into lesser hands. Nonetheless, they share enormous chemistry and it makes you wonder if Hollywood should try to pair up other actors from their generation in buddy films, only with more competent filmmaking. Nicholson is poignant at the end, especially in a scene when his Edward walks into his mansion to realize it is completely empty. Cut to a shot featuring Freeman’s Carter with his family eating a sumptuous feast, happy to be with them in the final stages of his life. There are some nice moments like this to be found in The Bucket List, but they are too few and far between. Director Reiner never delivers the emotional punch the viewer is craving and what he does give us is too sweet and sugarcoated.
The film will leave viewers to think about their own bucket lists to make and do before they leave this world; but we’re only thinking “It would be really cool if…” while we should be thinking about the film itself. We may be thinking about how good the performances are but cliches and sentimentalities never stick and there is an excessive amount of both in The Bucket List. You may find it worth your time to watch the headlining actors try to steal each scene from one another, but as the result of the poor writing and the unutilized talent that director Reiner possesses, The Bucket List never moved me enough to feel satisfied.