The Bucket List is a great big fraud of a movie. It pretends to be a story about sickness and death, when in reality, it is a bad sitcom dressing itself up in weighty issues and pretending to be “important” and “life-affirming.” You can make a good, thoughtful film about illness and death. Last year’s Away From Her springs to mind. You can even make a good, thoughtful comedy on the subject. What you cannot – or, perhaps I should say, should not – do is condescend to your audience, which is exactly what The Bucket List does. The illness and death on display here are not real illness or real death; they are movie-fied versions of those things that bare no resemblance to the genuine article, no matter how incessantly the pictures tries to convince us otherwise.
The story is like Grumpy Old Men crossed with “My Name is Earl.” Jack Nicholson plays Edward Cole, a crotchety old corporate bigwig, and Morgan Freeman is a mechanic named Carter Chambers. The two end up in a hospital room together, each of them suffering from a terminal illness. Carter makes up a “bucket list” of things he’d like to accomplish in the remaining months before he kicks said bucket. Edward sees the list, contributes a few items, and convinces his new friend that they should accomplish them together. Naturally, the two men learn some Important Life Lessons by doing this, becoming Better People in the process.
The whole “life lessons” thing was really hard for me to swallow. Carter ignores his wife’s pleas for him to spend his short remaining time with her and the children, which kind of got me off on the wrong foot with him, especially considering the vapidity of the things on the list. The movie portends to be about recognizing the important things in life before it’s too late; how is going skydiving more rewarding than spending precious time with one’s family? And are we to really believe that Carter was too stupid to make this distinction? At one point, he even yells at his wife, telling her that he’s spent years working long hours to provide for her and the kids. Wouldn’t it stand to reason, then, that he’d like to actually enjoy some of the time he missed with them?
The Bucket List might have been more successful if we had believed the things on the list had any meaning whatsoever to the characters, but we don’t. Truth be told, they’re pretty empty, and worse, they are clearly the product of a lame screenplay. Most of the adventures Edward and Carter go on are here simply because someone thought it would be funny to have two old guys doing them. I mean, come on – riding a motorcycle on the Great Wall of China? Racing cars around a track and doing “Dukes of Hazzard”-style jumps? Skydiving? I didn’t believe for a second that the characters’ lives were enriched by doing this, even though the script kept beating me over the head with the idea that they were. Surely these two men have more substantive things they’d like to accomplish before their time is up.
There are many scenes spent showing Edward and Carter traveling. They go to the Taj Mahal in India, and sit on an ancient ruin next to the pyramids in Egypt. Unfortunately, it’s clear that Nicholson and Freeman are actually sitting in front of a green-screen on a Hollywood set. The special effects are so unconvincing that they further pull us out of the story.
Perhaps the movie’s biggest sin is that everything that happens here is a set-up to be paid off later on, and you can see those pay-offs coming before the story even gets to them. For instance, Edward writes down that he wants to “kiss the most beautiful girl in the world.” At one point, a new character comes on screen and you just know that she will allow him to meet that goal. There are dozens of other similar examples. What really irks me, though, is that all these predictable elements happen at such pre-ordained times. There are no surprises here; just a sequence of events that occur according to a timeline designed for maximum emotional impact. I’m going to assume, given the film’s subject matter, that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out one of the key occurrences. (Heck, I figured it out from the movie’s coming attractions trailer!) Even though we’re waiting for it, the event takes place at such an obvious moment – a moment that is completely calculated to tug our heartstrings. No, strike that. The film doesn’t want to tug our heartstrings; it wants to rip them right out! I resented the sheer, unapologetic manipulative nature of The Bucket List.
All of this combines to make the picture feel utterly phony. It’s not really about illness and death. If it were, it would explore those things realistically and perhaps even find the dark humor in them. The Bucket List doesn’t want to be about reality, though. Instead, it’s about a fantasy version of illness and death, in which those things have no repercussions except to sanctify the dying. The film is curiously without mess. No one ever hurts too much because they’re all too busy being enlightened. Why not give us a single scene in which the characters show genuine fear of death? Or anger at having their bodies ravaged by disease? Edward and Carter are too busy trading stale “Golden Girls” quips to ever seriously consider their fate.
It might have helped (marginally) had Nicholson and Freeman switched roles instead of being cast to type. It would have at least livened things up had Freeman played the aging wildcat and Nicholson played the stoic one.
I really didn’t like The Bucket List, in case you couldn’t tell. The characters and situations bear little or no resemblance to anything real, and the approach to the subject matter struck me as inappropriately cutesy. Like I said, if you’re going to make a comedy about the process of dying, have the guts to do it down-and-dirty. In fairness, there is an audience for this kind of thing. Some people like sap and sentiment and the suggestion that there are easy answers to unpleasant situations. One person’s platitude is another’s profundity. It’s the same principal that allows someone like Mitch Albom to sell millions of books. If you dig this kind of thing, more power to you. Enjoy the film. (And I mean that without condescension.) On the other hand, if you’re more like me – if you want a film to earn the tears it is jerking from your eyes – then you’ll probably agree that The Bucket List is a 97-minute romp in the very shallow end of the emotional pool.
( 1/2 out of four)
The Bucket List arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray on June 10, with widescreen and fullscreen versions on the same disc.
Although I obviously wasn't crazy about it, the film was a box office hit, and I heard from a lot of readers who disagreed with my assessment. If you are one of those people, the DVD has some bonus features that may interest you. First up is "Writing a Bucket List," a 5-minute interview with writer Justin Zackham, who talks about how he conceived the story, as well as his upcoming book of real celebrity bucket lists. This feature is actually really appealing, since Zackham's passion for the idea of a bucket list comes through. After that is the music video for John Mayer's song "Say," which serves as the movie's theme.
The Blu-Ray version has both of these features, as well as an interactive trivia track. There is also a two-part bonus in which director Rob Reiner interviews Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Added up, these interviews total about 40 minutes. Finally, there is a 12-minute documentary about the making of the John Mayer song/video.
The Bucket List is rated PG-13 for language, including a sexual reference. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.
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