The marketing for "The Bucket List" centers on the misadventures of two old coots trying to soak up the last bits of sun before day become permanent night. What the advertising doesn't mention is that this picture is about death, in all its chemoed, coughed-up-blood glory. This isn't a dreadful thing, mind you; however, those looking for a romp in the daisies should be advised that "Bucket List" isn't going to provide much in the laugh department. If you've seen director Rob Reiner's work in recent years, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
Diagnosed with cancer, Carter (Morgan Freeman) has been confined to a hospital bed to undergo treatment. Wheeled into his room one day is Edward (Jack Nicholson), the filthy rich owner of the hospital whose impersonal mandates for care have come back to punish him. Stuck together, Carter and Edward kick off a friendship that builds in trust over the length of their hospitalization. When they both get word of similar limited prognoses, they dream up a "bucket list" of things to do before they die, heading off across the globe to see the sights and take life by the horns one last time.
Again, to smudge the polish of the marketing, the actual bucket list moments of "Bucket List" only make up a mere third of the movie. The picture is more of a leisurely character drama, spending a great deal of time in a hospital setting with Carter and Edward getting to know each other, so their eventual adventure is easier to swallow. The promotion of the movie promises a rip-roaring good time, but "Bucket List" just isn't a comedy. There's a rather humane illustration of friendship in there between the tears and the laughs.
With two pros like Freeman and Nicholson onboard, it's not difficult to praise the acting. The chemistry between the actors is a robust bond that's forged on delicate foundations of confidence and admiration. The performances are even more impressive if you consider that the screenplay by Justin Zackham is really just a series of philosophical monologues, with each character revealing themselves through extended personal reflection. It's not exactly snappy repartee, but Freeman and Nicholson dig into what they're given, finding the voices of Carter and Edward quickly, and slipping into their credible friendship with ease. It's amiable work from the two veterans, and their comfort makes the bitter predictability of "Bucket List" all the more easy to tolerate.
Reiner being Reiner, "Bucket List" dissolves into quicksand-like pools of cliché and woeful dramatic underlining just when it looks to be a creation of interesting singularity. The story of Carter and Edward opens itself wide for captivating plot turns that discover both men's appetites for life might be more than simply taking in some skydiving and motorcycling across the Great Wall of China. These are complex personalities, but the script boils their emotions down to transparent family issues, culminating in a cringing sequence where Reiner cuts between Carter blissfully enjoying a huge family meal and Edward forlornly staring out his living room window, sobbing in front of two hookers. There's the leaden touch of Rob Reiner in a nutshell.
I wanted to cherish "Bucket List." The opening 40 minutes are actually quite a harrowing evocation of brutal cancer treatment and begrudging patient small talk, leisurely bringing the viewer into the drama; a wild change from the hit-the-ground-running command of most feature films. The movie certainly had the potential to explore torturous regret and the sweet spot of a life lived to the fullest, but the screenplay is too heavy with conceits, and Reiner is unable to permit his picture a chance to breathe in the second act, devoted entirely to cartoonish assumptions of character. There's much to enjoy about "Bucket List," but for every step forward, Reiner trips over himself, flattening a unique film about deathbed privilege into multiplex mush that is a constant struggle to stay interested in.
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