I must admit I didn’t think much of The Bucket List the first time I laid eyes on its trailer. Looked like another stiff disappointment director Rob Reiner would blow into multiplexes. That was my first impression of the film. Anymore, Reiner’s work consists of routine, then more routine.
The first act’s the toughest, no doubt about it. It marches you in, ears burning from Marc Shaiman’s maudlin score and Morgan Freeman’s Very Special Narration spoken over views so Arctic this threatens to turn into March of the Penguins 2.
But once it really puts you in that hospital room — the one Freeman and Jack Nicholson share as terminal-cancer patients who decide to tackle a list of life accomplishments before dying — that’s when you know it’s for real. Two legends bringing their light, familiar notes to an occasionally leaden story, and nothing left but 98 mercifully short minutes to think about it.
The Bucket List is a funny thing. First, you hate it, then you get used to it. Enough time has passed for its leads, you get so you depend on them. They’re institutions, Freeman and Nicholson. Once you get past a feeling they’re merely conversing as actors who’ve never before starred together (Nicholson’s comment about Freeman’s freckles), Bucket settles into a tolerable groove.
Freeman is Carter Chambers, a walking-encyclopedia mechanic undergoing experimental treatment. His hospital is owned by Edward Cole (Nicholson), a tyrannical, womanizing tycoon who falls victim to his own no-exceptions rule of two beds to a room after he coughs up blood in court.
Following antagonistic clashes and grim pronouncements of how long each has left, Edward goads Carter into following through an idea he’s started, but thrown in the trash — a “bucket list,” an extension of a college exercise Carter once had to list goals of a life before kicking the bucket.
Much to the chagrin of Carter’s wife (Beverly Todd), the duo jumps from a plane, trades paint between vintage Mustangs and Camaros and trots the globe from Africa to the Great Wall of China. These scenes put the actors in a series of visual-effects sequences alternating between polished realism (flapping faces during skydiving) to laughable fakery with soft twilights (a jaunt to India).
I wish I could tell you The Bucket List fights the good fight, that calling it Reiner’s best film in 12 years means something coming off his unwatchable dreck like Rumor Has It … or Alex and Emma. I wish I could tell you that. But The Bucket List is just a modestly entertaining Hollywood fairytale of facing death head on, thankfully not as gooey as it could be but far from anything great.
Every so often, it shows up with fresh touches: one character’s chest catheter wriggling loose in the middle of a fancy dinner; Nicholson’s speech about his daughter’s marriage; a trademark-Jack zinger about the effects of hospital visitors; and a riotous bit advice for the aged.
Some things are better left unsaid, though, and that its quasi-poetic finale is expressed in narration, not silence, makes your heart ache because of it. Yep, the schmaltz keeps at The Bucket List. Sometimes it’s able to fight it off, sometimes not. And that’s how it goes for The Bucket List.
That’s its routine.