The Bucket List is a bizarro brother to Coppola’s muddled but dignified meditation on aging and death. The film’s trailers suggest the triteness you’re in for, and Morgan Freeman’s opening narration—the same wise-old-black-man spiel that ruined The Shawshank Redemption and once again bristles here—seconds it. And the entire Rob Reiner-directed sick-buddy dramedy, boasting the odd-couple pairing of Freeman and Jack Nicholson, delivers. Even scripter Justin Zackham seems to know the drivel he’s dishing out. When Nicholson’s cancer-ridden character learns of the concept of the “bucket list”—a catalog of all the stuff you want to do before you kick said bucket—his response is an apt description for the movie. “Cutesy,” he says, dismissively.
That said, Reiner’s film isn’t terrible, just flat—though lifelessness is a pretty damning characteristic in a story about living it up before you die. Freeman’s Carter is a mechanic who dropped out of college when his wife became pregnant. Forty-five years later, their relationship is tepid, and it gets no warmer once he learns he has cancer. Meanwhile, Nicholson’s Edward, a wealthy bachelor and businessman with a special interest in buying hospitals, is still kicking—until he squawks to a board of a new property that the facility is to have “two beds to a room, no exceptions.” Almost immediately after the words come out of his mouth, he coughs up blood. Later, he wakes up next to Carter, naturally demanding that he be granted an exception to the roommate policy. Plus, he likes superfancy coffee, while Carter thinks Chock Full o’ Nuts is aces. Let the wackiness begin.
The film’s title comes into play when Carter begins composing his to-do list; his choices are largely philosophical and selfless, and Edward declares them “extremely weak.” (Zackham’s self-awareness again?) Edward has the cash, so he adds sports cars, sky-diving, and loads of travel to Carter’s to-dos, persuades him to spend his final days with him instead of his wife, and off they go.
Like Youth Without Youth, The Bucket List has some sweet cinematography going for it—pyramids, polar caps, and the Great Wall are gorgeously depicted—but little else. Almost nothing feels genuine here, from the men’s friendship (knowing chuckles can take even the best actors only so far) to their whooping last hurrahs (an already-dull drag race is accompanied by an excruciating cover of ZZ Top’s “Tush”) to the by-the-numbers heartstring-tugging (a cute widdle granddaughter! dramatic collapses!). Worse, Reiner likes to highlight, underline, and add exclamation points to the story, such as having Carter react to bad news first with a slack-jawed dropping of his cigarette and later with a forceful crumpling of his list. Freeman at least had the right idea with the latter—it’s what he and Nicholson should have done when they first eyed the script.