“The Bucket List” is a feel-good film about death, a sitcom about mortality, “Ikiru” for meatheads. It’s also a picture about two cancer patients confronting reality, and deciding how they want to spend their presumed last days, that has not an ounce of reality about it. For all these reasons, along with the star power of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, this refitting of the grumpy old men genre stands a good chance of becoming director Rob Reiner’s first hit since the mid-’90s, even though its prevailing sensibility will eventually make it look more at home on small screens.
In Reiner’s world, the opening scene showing auto mechanic Carter Chambers (Freeman) smoking a cigarette signals that the genial fellow is headed straight to the grave. But the first stop is a hospital, where he’s quickly joined by gazillionaire Edward Cole (Nicholson), who, despite owning the place, is forced to share a room with a fellow patient due to his own rules about equal treatment for all.
Although they embark on cancer treatments that allow a slight chance of survival, both men are given roughly a year to live, and their enforced cohabitation gives them plenty of time to ruminate about dreams, regrets and remaining hopes in between slapstick emergency dashes to the bathroom.
A philosophically inclined “Jeopardy” whiz, Carter wanted to be a history professor, but the demands of a growing family obliged him to face economic realities. Edward, by contrast, has had everything money can buy except a stable family life; married four times, he’s estranged from his only child, a daughter.
Early going is highlighted by Nicholson getting his head shaved in preparation for surgery, meaning the well-fed star goes through most of the picture looking like a satiric version of the Michelin Man or a cheerier brother of Brando’s Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.”
Finding some scribblings by Carter noting modest things he wants to do before he dies, Edward adds to “the bucket list” with far more grandiose, and uniquely photogenic, proposals such as skydiving and racecar driving, and others that involve travel by private jet, a mode of transport that is the norm for Edward.
So, after a big argument between Carter and his understandably perturbed wife (Beverly Todd), the old boys set off for a world tour that includes the South of France, South Africa, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Himalayas and Hong Kong. Unfortunately, this is a film that leaves the soundstage only with the greatest reluctance; the parade of visual effects-generated scenes in which Nicholson and Freeman visit wonders of the world, while so obviously remaining in Hollywood, proves as realistic as a Hope-Crosby “Road” picture and about as profound, if not as funny. The trip’s patent phoniness is quaint enough to provoke momentary nostalgia for the long-gone days of rear-projection process work.
The scenic sojourn, during which any traces of illness are magically banished, provides for saucepan-deep probing into the men’s lives. The button-pushing by first-time scripter Justin Zackham remains narrowly focused on unsettled emotional issues concerning Edward’s daughter, with whom Carter tries to arrange a reconciliation, and Carter’s latent misgivings about the road not taken. Resolution of these matters is assuredly provided in the most obvious manner for immediate audience uplift.
Freeman’s hardwired straight-shooter gravitas as an actor would have wonderfully served a genuinely serious meditation on the same subject. As it is, the ever-steady thesp provides a rock against which Nicholson can bounce like a crazy ball. Edward’s extravagant view of life fits what the actor has become, and Nicholson actually hams it up less than he might have, but it’s still a turn in which you’re watching the star, and making associations between him and aspects of the material, rather than the character.
The role of Edward’s factotum, who accompanies the guys on their journey, could have been conceived any number of ways to abundant comic effect, but he’s been written in such a dull, straight-laced manner that Sean Hayes, of “Will & Grace,” can do nothing to bring him to life. A similar comedy-drama from Hollywood’s earlier years would have featured at least a half-dozen wonderful supporting parts, the lack of which is duly felt here.
In keeping with the effort expended on the location visuals, tech aspects are routine.