Directed by: Rob Reiner
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes, Beverly Todd, Rob Morrow
Rated: PG-13 for language, including a sexual reference.
Parental Notes: In terms of violence and sexuality, this is a very low-key film. It does have some gentle deaths in it and the whole terminal-illness thing, plus some language, but that’s about it.
The idea of making a list of things to do before you die is not a new one. Lots of folks make them in college. But what if you made one when you knew you had at most a year to live? The protagonists of “The Bucket List” are two old guys who have both been diagnosed with terminal cancer. One of them happens to be incredibly wealthy, so when they decide to make a list of things to do before kicking the bucket, they can include things like “see the pyramids” on it. This movie is only a hair or three less super-sweet than one might expect from the plot.
The two guys are a classic odd-couple pair: Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson, “The Departed”) is the owner of a great many hospitals, which he runs to be profitable rather than comfortable. Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman, “Feast of Love”) is a mechanic, a quiet, wise man who has a real head from trivia from intently watching Jeopardy! for decades. They wind up paired together in a hospital room when Edward collapses and is taken to one of his own hospitals. He has a rule: two beds to a room, no exceptions. It sure saves money, but he is not a happy man to be on the receiving end. Carter is more philosophical.
They both have cancer, it turns out, so they’re in there for the long haul. Gradually, the two men bond over chemotherapy side-effects and card games and become friends. When they receive their terminal diagnoses at about the same time, it seems only natural for Edward to fund a joint bucket list trip. Much to the confusion of Carter’s large, affectionate family, he heads off with Edward to see the world before his time is up. Of course, some of Carter’s wisdom and humanity rub off on Edward along the way.
Watching Freeman and Nicholson in their roles is almost like watching two old hands at juggling passing the time by throwing a few clubs around. The script is not a particularly difficult one, but even at their most relaxed and least-challenged, these two men are better actors than most. Indeed, they seem to be having a wonderful time, and their chemistry is great. it’s a pity it’s not a better vehicle for them.
The one great flaw of movies like “The Bucket List” is that they are fantasies. They are like pleasant dreams that are all too easy to wake up from if you actually know anything about what is supposed to be happening on-screen. I have so far been lucky enough that cancer has not struck my immediate circle, but I strongly suspect that the daily affairs of cancer wards are nothing like what’s shown here. I also strongly suspect that two men in their seventies with a terminal illness, even if it is a variety that is “symptom-free” in the last year, would not find skydiving, climbing a pyramid, or hiking in the Himalayas terribly enjoyable — or even at the top of their list of things they wish they could do.
I enjoyed the film a lot more than I expected to, but I imagine that if you have personal experience with the things it manhandles in the pursuit of the sweet storyline, it may be more like salt in the wounds than an enjoyable time at the movies.