The Bucket List
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Justin Zackham
Starring Jack Nicholson
and Morgan Freeman
I'm sure it's just a coincidence that, in a season when one major religion is celebrating a divine birth, two holiday movies are sentimentalizing the hell out of death. First, P.S. I Love You and now this: The Bucket List, or The Odd Couple Meet Their Maker - although not before making a list, and checking it twice, of all the things they want to do before kicking the, well, you-know-what. Then they do those 11th-hour things and, gosh, nothing becomes their life like the leaving of it - which, come to think of it, goes double for this saccharine picture.
Cole and Carter are the odd couple in question. The former is a billionaire CEO with four failed marriages, an estranged daughter, and no one to care about him except his paid factotum. The latter is a car mechanic and ultra-solid citizen with a loving wife plus a brood of successful children. Jack Nicholson takes one role, Morgan Freeman the other - props for guessing who plays which. Not that it matters, since director Rob Reiner is betting that their star power alone will blind us to the holes in this cheesecloth of a script. It proves a fool's bet - no star shines that brightly.
Of course, as fate and a strained plot would have it, our mismatched couple first meet in a hospital room where, from neighbouring beds, they discover their common bond - both have advanced cancer and matching death sentences, just a matter of months. In these establishing scenes, it's possible to summon up some mild interest watching two veteran actors showcasing their trademark styles. Jack is his usual twitchy, eyebrow-raising self, accepting his sentence with bravado and, when the treatment starts and the nausea kicks in, curling those lecherous lips around lines like, "Ah, the smell of chemo in the morning." Morgan offers the expected study in contrast - the voice of quiet dignity and, for a humble mechanic (you guessed right), quite the brainiac too. How do we know he's smart? The way folks in Hollywood movies always prove their grey matter: by showing off whenever Jeopardy! comes on. And it comes on here a lot.
Happily, each guy enjoys a remission that lasts just long enough to fill the rest of the flick. So, instant buddies now, the pair hit the open road to check off the items on their shared to-do-before-I-croak list. Right off, they're jumping from planes, getting tattooed and racing fast cars around an oval track, scenes that Reiner assembles into a frantic montage and tries to play for bald laughs. Suddenly, it's like we checked out of the cancer ward straight into Talladega Nights.
Things do settle down a bit when our merrily doomed duo hop an executive jet for more exotic locales - roaming the Serengeti, marvelling at the pyramids, admiring the Taj Mahal, trekking through the Himalayas. Yes, it's quite the remission. En route, they're careful to match their attire to the site - bush jackets for the plains, parkas for the mountains, just like TV anchormen answering the call of informational duty. Speaking of which, being a brainiac, Carter acts as our helpful tour guide, telling us how many years it took to build this, or how many stones it took to fill that. The guy's a one-man Lonely Planet.
To be sure, it's not all sightseeing. Since imminent demise does have a way of concentrating the attention, our buds can often be found pausing on a bench in Egypt, or over an aperitif in Hong Kong, to trade confessions and compare philosophies. For example, one is of the mind that life is but a brief candle, or, as he more eloquently puts it, "We live, we die." The other, smiling his dignified smile and drawing upon his reserves of faith, counters with the provocative, "What if you're wrong?" On the wings of such Socratic exchanges, the pic soars through the stratospheres of knowledge.
Flight over, we're all the wiser for it. So girded, do the bucketeers extend the excursion to go gentle into that good night? Maybe, maybe not, but, by the end, it's not their fate that worries us. Instead, our thoughts have turned selfishly personal and our fears disturbingly dark. Apparently, plowing through this much treacle is enough to gum up any mortal coil.
The Bucket List opens tomorrow in Toronto, and in other Canadian cities on Jan. 11.