Warner Bros.'s Blu-ray presentation is essentially flawless, and some of the extras are quite good, though the format's high-definition picture actually works against the film in some ways. More on that below.
Edward Cole (Nicholson) is a lonely, ailing billionaire, whose holdings include the very hospital he now finds himself in. Archly artificial circumstances compel him to share a room with Carter Chambers (Freeman), an unpretentious mechanic with a passion for useless trivia. Feeling he deserves to live it up after devoting the past 45 years to raising his family, Carter accepts Edward's offer to tool around the world together after both are diagnosed with inoperable cancer.
Their inspiration? A "Things to Do" list Carter revisits years after dropping out of college, reflecting on a lifetime of sacrifices, opportunities lost, and a marriage long without passion. And so, before "kicking the bucket," Carter and Edward embark on a globetrotting series of adventures, from skydiving to stock car racing to scaling the pyramids of Egypt, all on Edward's inexhaustible dime.
The eager-to-please, overly sincere screenplay is by Justin Zackham, who was about 35 years old when he wrote this; it's his first Big Credit after studying at NYU's film school. One of the problems with the movie is that Edward and Carter act like a 35-year-old NYU Film School graduate's idea of what dying 70-year-olds are like. It's a phony perspective that's almost never believable. This isn't to say young people shouldn't write about old characters; Martin Brest was in his late-20s when he wrote and directed Going in Style (1979), a similar film about bored 80-year-olds who decide to rob a bank. But in that film the characters act like real 80-year-olds more believably in tune with their own mortality, and not like derivative movie-movie characters.
Granted, this is The Bucket List, not Near Death (1989), but for it to work it needed a believable foundation and that just ain't there. The meet-cute business at the beginning is phony, the depiction of cancer treatments and their side effects is sanitized almost to the point of being offensive (cancer-survivor Roger Ebert was offended; his review of the film was overly harsh but highly amusing), and the way the two characters react to their diagnoses, toward their families, etc., just isn't realistic. It's a movie about death and dying written by someone who, probably, can thank his lucky stars that he's had little experience watching friends and family die, and hasn't yet been forced to look death in the eye himself.
The Bucket List is also indicative of very American self-involvedness and dealing with personal problems by going out and spending oodles of money. In Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952), a minor city bureaucrat dying of stomach cancer belatedly finds validation in his life by seeing to it that a polluted vacant lot in his district is transformed into a children's park. Conversely, The Bucket List is nothing more than outrageous wish-fulfillment; all concerns are inward, with Carter enjoying and Edward wallowing in Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous, though there's little doubt Carter will in the end return to his Norman Rockwell-imagined family by the final reel. It should come as no surprise then that Zackham's own "bucket list" included breaking into Hollywood with a script for a multi-million-dollar movie.
Adding enormously to the film's artificiality is its extravagant overuse of process screen effects. On Blu-ray it's obvious that a combination of CGI work and second-unit footage of Egypt, China, Africa, etc., was created for Nicholson and Freeman to stand in front of. (At least one shot looks like film from a stock footage library.) It's unlikely the pair ever went farther than Malibu Creek State Park and, unfortunately, it looks it. I guess most of the film's reported $45 budget went to above-the-line salaries.
Still, Nicholson and Freeman are such fine actors their performances frequently rise above the material; Freeman admits to passing on the script initially, agreeing to do it only after Reiner and Nicholson became attached to the project, while Nicholson especially seems to have insisted on some script changes and adapted some personal experiences to his character. Moreover, the film is really a star vehicle for the two actors, both playing up their familiar screen personae. Nicholson delivers a speech near the end that almost defies gravity; it's highly manipulative and obvious, yet the three-time Oscar-winner sells it with all the panache of Suzanne Somers hustling Thighmasters.
Video & Audio
Originally released at 1.85:1, Warner's 1080p transfer of The Bucket List is a basically flawless 1.78:1 transfer, as well it should be. Color, grain, contrast, etc., all look solid. Indeed, the clarity of the Blu-ray image reveals details the filmmakers probably hoped audiences wouldn't notice, like all that process work, or the fact that while Nicholson clearly allows his head to be shaved for the film, Freeman sure looks like he's wearing a standard-issue "bald cap" for his last scenes in the movie.
The picture is accompanied by Warner's usual audio options: Dolby Digital 5.1 in English, dubbed-in Quebec French, and Spanish, with optional subtitles in all three languages. It's adequate, up to contemporary standards but not outstanding. Some may be disappointed by the lack of lossless audio (Isn't that a contradiction?) but this really isn't the film to wake up the neighbors with anyway.
Supplements, all in 480i or 480p standard definition, include two very amusing interviews: (Director) Rob Reiner Interviews the Stars. Looking more and more like his old man, Reiner chats with the actors sometime after the film's release and surprising success. The talk with Nicholson is especially rewarding, even though he and Reiner over-praise the film and give away the ending, even quoting the last line! The chat is refreshingly casual and forthcoming, with fascinating side-trips talking about James Dean and Jeff Corey, The Fortune and Misery. Reiner's Freeman interview is also fun though because it's conducted via satellite it comes off much less intimate than the face-to-face Nicholson piece.
Less impressive is Writing 'The Bucket List' a five-minute interview that's not particularly interesting; there's both a John Mayer Music Video and (we know you wanted it) Making Of the music video. A pop-up Trivia Track unfolds at a snail's pace with dull factoids even Carter Chambers wouldn't bother memorizing. It's one thing to load down movies like Casablanca or Star Wars with trivia tracks, but how many people out there have the stamina to watch stuff like this on The Bucket List all the way through? Not me.
Utterly predictable but enjoyable*, at just 92 minutes not counting the end credits (curiously, there are no opening titles at all) The Bucket List thankfully doesn't try to stretch its slight, unbelievable but moderately amusing story. It's no feather in Nicholson or Freeman's caps, but they deserve credit for sucking the viewer into their stories, even if you don't buy a word of it.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.