One might assume that a movie with two legendary actors like Jack Nicholson (“The Departed,” “Something’s Gotta Give”) and Morgan Freeman (“Feast of Love,” “Evan Almighty”) might turn out to be a competition over who has the bigger acting chops. In “The Bucket List,” however, the two actors’ on-screen chemistry is magnetic as they play off each other. Yet that magnetism alone isn’t enough to carry the entire film.
Freeman plays a car mechanic, Carter Chambers, who receives news that he has cancer and is going to die. Nicholson plays a rich businessman, Edward Cole, who ends up receiving the same news and sharing the same hospital room as Chambers. Although Nicholson plays the typical bristly character he has become known for, the pair bond over shared miseries and become friends.
They become such great friends, in fact, that they decide to ditch Carter’s family (especially his wife, who is seen as a nag) and go on quite the road trip. They create a to-do list of things they want to do before they die, such as skydiving and seeing something majestic, and set out to accomplish all of them.
The entire premise of the film is predictable, despite the few minor surprises that crop up along the way. While the previews didn’t give away all the punch lines, the entire film is captured so clearly in them that the theater viewing experience becomes unnecessary.
And it isn’t only the plot that is predictable. Unfortunately, there is nothing new to be seen from the actors either. Nicholson plays Nicholson and Freeman plays Freeman. They don’t show the audience anything unexpected.
Freeman plays a man who is full of trivial facts and loves Jeopardy because he once wanted to be history professor. And while that could be an interesting character, he plays it with the same approach as several of his previous characters: a wise old man. He delivers his lines with his typical sage terseness and droll humor. In a common gesture, he takes his glasses on and off as a character tic so much that in one scene in the hospital, the gesture actually screws up the continuity of when they’re supposed to be on or off from one take to another.
Nicholson, on the other hand, plays a businessman who doesn’t relate to anyone around him. He is stereotypically interested only in money and what it can gain him. He can’t even remember the names of the people he sees on a daily basis. He is crotchety and fixated on the finer pleasures in life that his money can buy him. He growls at people all throughout the film, yet somehow manages to be that crazy old guy the audience loves when they see his character go through chemotherapy.
Certainly director Rob Reiner can be praised for making a decent film here, far better than previous stinkers like “Alex & Emma.” There the plot was so awful the movie quickly faded from memory and public consciousness. But this movie isn’t like Reiner’s “When Harry Met Sally” or “A Few Good Men,” either. Unlike those films, this one won’t receive any Oscar nominations any time soon.
Even worse, the entire concept is so far-fetched it can’t be seen as anything but fantastical wish-fulfillment for victims of cancer. In what world does a poor black man share a room with a rich-but-cantankerous white man who, after a quick change of personality simply for the sake of plot so he can bond with another human being for the first time in his life, gives him a trip around the world?
Surely every person given only a few months left to live would like to find a roommate like that in the hospital. However, the horrors of chemotherapy are quite the price to pay for a free trip to the Himalayas.
While the plot surely has macabre potential, “The Bucket List” manages to be amusing and endearing because of the witty writing. At one point, Nicholson quips to his helper (Sean Hayes, “Will & Grace,” “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!”) about three things he’s learned as an old man and leaves the audience howling with laughter by the third punch line.
Even with its flaws, the film still entertains. The audience was more than satisfied with the humor delivered by Nicholson and Freeman. And instead of being a hanky-wringer, it left the audience with a warm glow despite the inevitable outcome for the characters.