Friday, January 11, 2008

The Bucket List: Going in style

The Bucket List (2007) • View trailer
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.11.08

Some films are bulletproof: They'll live or die solely in the court of popular opinion, regardless of critical commentary.

Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman, right) isn't entirely happy about the first
adventure proposed by new best friend Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson), and his
nervous jitters increase as the drop zone approaches. But he'll soon find
tougher things to face: his own feelings about life and mortality.
The Bucket List is just such a picture: a sentimental and predictable script; a concept that explores wish fulfillment and roads not taken; and two veteran actors who could deliver these frequently amusing but not terribly substantial lines in their sleep.

What's not to like?

There's something undeniably engaging about watching a couple of old pros work such material ... and few could be better than Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman.

Nicholson plays Edward Cole, a corporate raider maintaining his empire by gobbling up distressed hospitals and turning them into soulless, profit-driven businesses that regard patients as inconvenient, if not a downright nuisance. Edward is, as a result, precisely the sort of man who would benefit from a stinging come-uppance; he gets it when an unexpected cancer diagnosis shortens his life to a matter of months.

Edward also winds up in one of his own hospitals, where he's hoist by the petard of his own efficiency edicts: two patients per room, no exceptions. He thus winds up having his own private misery invaded by Carter Chambers (Freeman), a career car mechanic facing his own mortality, and for similar reasons.

The degree to which Justin Zackham's script has any actual juice occurs during these early scenes, before the two men thaw enough to reach out: Director Rob Reiner lets both get reasonably scruffy as they navigate the humiliating trauma of (for example) keeping each other up while wracked with bone-ratting chills from chemotherapy, or dashing for another round of vomiting in the shared bathroom, while trying not to be noticed by anybody else in the room.

Both men go into brief remission and wonder how to approach their final days. Edward, having grown to respect his new companion — actually "liking" each other will take a bit more time — embraces Carter's half-hearted scribblings on a sheet of yellow legal paper: a long-ago philosophy exercise designed to encourage people to imagine what they'd want to accomplish, if enabled to know when they'd die.

It's a "bucket list": things to do before kicking the bucket (a line Nicholson delivers with mordant relish).

Because Edward has more money than God, our protagonists have both the ability and the means to fulfill an ever-expanding catalogue of fantasies, from touring the world's exotic locales to sky-diving and (Carter's long-held desire) racing a Shelby Mustang around a deserted track.

The two men contribute equally to the list, and one of the film's more clever elements involves the unexpected ways in which a few of the items are ticked off. (I particularly like how "kiss the world's most beautiful girl" turns out.) Many of the items are superficial and easily accomplished via Edward's wealth; others cut a bit closer to the bone, and result in emotional distress.

Both men have issues: Edward has become an unscrupulous businessman who learned not to show his vulnerable side; Carter, forced to abandon higher education when marriage and the sudden arrival of children sent him to work, pragmatically spent the rest of his life supporting his family. Now, however, he feels like he missed out on catering to his own desires ... an attitude that both bewilders and hurts his wife, Virginia (Beverly Todd, a good actress given a tough role).

Nicholson never gives Edward much depth; most of his lines are designed to play to the actor's signature raised eyebrows and wicked grin. As a result, Nicholson can't really bring any oomph to Edward's few moments of crisis — the "secret" in this guy's past — and these scenes are the film's weakest.

Freeman, on the other hand, persuasively sells Carter's intelligence and quiet dignity. Freeman gets more out of a sidelong glance than most actors can wring from pages of dialogue.

Aside from the many trips to hither and yon, and the amazing views from, say, atop a pyramid, The Bucket List easily could be a stageplay; the cast doesn't really stretch beyond Edward, Carter, Virginia and Edward's loyal assistant, Thomas (Sean Hayes). Indeed, the only other relationship of consequence is that between Edward and Thomas, and Hayes plays off Nicholson superbly.

The film toys with us in two respects: the degree to which Carter narrates the story, off camera, and our mounting curiosity regarding the identity of the lone figure trudging up a snow-covered mountain. Both plot devices lead us toward certain expectations, but don't get smug; just as he gets cute with certain items on the list, Zackham delivers an inventive twist with those two elements.

At times, no question, The Bucket List could use more depth. But Reiner knows his stuff, and you may be surprised by the degree to which you're moved by this film's final 10 minutes.

Between them, Nicholson and Freeman radiate a whole lotta charm.

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