‘Bucket List’ Survives Gimmicks
By David Germain
Facing terminal illness, we all should get to experience a no-costs-barred world tour to do everything we ever wanted.
Most of us don’t have the convenient bottomless wallet that allows Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman to do just that in “The Bucket List,” a comic drama that puts director Rob Reiner back in commercial — if not artistic — form.
Unlike Reiner’s string of duds the last 10 years or so, the movie is easily accessible, with Nicholson and Freeman elevating a story overloaded with cliched life lessons and self-help slogans into a tolerable, relatively painless way to go.
Nicholson and Freeman are so lovably companionable, they almost make you forget the glaring contrivances screenwriter Justin Zackham concocts to bring these two mismatched cancer patients together, making steadfast buddies out of men who never would have connected in real life.
Those contrivances start at the beginning, as we’re introduced to the two leads. Carter Chambers (Freeman) has toiled 45 years as an auto mechanic to give his wife and kids a better life, but he’s a well-read man with the soul of a philosopher.
Edward Cole (Nicholson) is a wealthy hedonist who has built a billion-dollar business taking over poorly run hospitals and turning them into profitable operations. A basic fiscal rule hammered home in his opening scene: Two patients to a room, no exceptions.
So when both men are diagnosed with cancer, they end up as roomies, aloof at the start but quickly warming up and empathizing over each other’s pains and dire prognoses — months to live, maybe a year at best.
As an idle exercise, Carter starts scribbling what he calls a “bucket list” — things to do before you kick the bucket. Edward takes it seriously, proposing that with his money, the sky’s the limit on what they could experience before they reach their expiration dates.
The next thing you know, they’re skydiving, drag-racing and flying in Edward’s private jet for fine dining in France, safaris in Africa, motorcycle rides along the Great Wall of China and expeditions to reach the summit of a holy mountain in Tibet.
“The Bucket List” would be as infuriating as “Pretty Woman” — a hooker who looks like Julia Roberts plucked off the streets by studly Richard Gere, yeah, right — if Nicholson and Freeman didn’t make their unlikely camaraderie so warm and engaging.
A gimmicky travelogue much of the time, “The Bucket List” injects some small side dramas for each man — for Carter, a wife (Beverly Todd) angered that her hubby is off carousing with a stranger; for Edward, a family estrangement to repair.
Early on, the movie presents fleeting moments of the nasty reality of a wasting death, particularly with Nicholson, who’s made up to look like a true wreck amid the horror of post-surgery chemo.
But ultimately, Reiner’s aiming to make a feel-good movie about death, how it’s not so bad if you face it on your own terms. Of course, the point is that death is universal, stopping for us all, rich and poor, at some point.
But again, infinite cash to visit Tibet or race vintage muscle cars on a private track definitely is not universal. For the rest of us, our own bucket lists would amount to no more than wish lists as we struggle to pay the medical bills.