Monday, June 16, 2008

The Bucket List

Director: Rob Reiner
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes, Beverly Todd, Rob Morrow, Rowena King

Running Time: 98 min.

Rating: PG-13

**1/2 (out of ****)

When you have two actors the caliber of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman headlining a film together for the first time certain expectations accompany it, all of which are incredibly high. If you’ve seen any of the commercials or trailers for The Bucket List you already know they play two terminally ill cancer patients who, with only less than a year left to live, make a list of everything they want to do with the time they have left.

It’s a “can’t miss” premise I assumed that if executed even half as well as it could be would still have the potential to be one of the most entertaining and emotionally moving pictures of the past year. Instead, it ends up being a dreary slog and a harsh reminder that even the best actors still need intelligent material to support their well-intentioned efforts.

That it still almost manages to get over the hump is a testament to the skill of these two acting icons, who share a great onscreen chemistry and for the most part deliver terrific performances. They deserve none of the blame and the amount that can be placed on director Rob Reiner is surprisingly minimal. It’s a breezy, predictable film with an uninspired screenplay that too often goes on autopilot, so in love with its central idea that it completely forgets to develop it. Instead it seems more concerned with long-winded soliloquies, mundane philosophizing and marital strife. I was actually worried the two central characters would bore themselves to death before they completed the list and we got to a resolution to the story.

Hard-working blue-collar auto mechanic Carter Chambers (Freeman) has lived a life plagued with some regret despite a healthy marriage to his wife of 47 years with whom he has two sons and a daughter. When he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer he ends up sharing a room with the hospital’s cranky billionaire CEO Edward Cole (Nicholson), who’s also dying of cancer. The roommates get off to a rocky start but before long they start to hit it off and become fast friends, commiserating over the pain of chemotherapy. I really enjoyed the first half hour of this picture when these two guys were getting to know each other and Reiner was smart enough to not try anything fancy and just let the two actors play off one another. The result is we get to know and care about these two characters and they come off as real people, not stereotypes.

When the idea of the bucket list is introduced everything goes downhill. I say “introduced” because I’m convinced that only if screenwriter Justin Zackham had physically walked onscreen himself and handed the list to the actors could its appearance have come off more clumsy and obvious. What started as an emotionally involving story of two men from different backgrounds growing closer turns into actors reciting clumsy dialogue to explain the purpose of the list, which is one of the most unambitious “to do lists” you’re ever likely to read from anyone who’s near death. Here’s a sampling:

1. Go race car driving
2. Go sky-diving
3. Go on a safari
4. Get a tattoo

There’s more (much of which is barely completed by the end of the film) but it doesn’t get any better. I know these guys are supposed to be up there in years, but that’s the best they could do? The script introduced an interesting aspect to Freeman’s Carter in the beginning when we find out he’s a history buff whose ambitions to teach fell by the wayside when his wife became pregnant. Wouldn’t he want to follow through with that life goal and earn his degree? Scenes of Nicholson and Freeman in a frat house surely would have been more entertaining than any of the above options. It sure worked for Nicholson in a far superior comedy about a man entering the twilight of his life, About Schmidt. Wouldn’t they hit Vegas? I mean, really, who wouldn’t hit Vegas with only a couple of months left to live? What about past girlfriends? This list is the centerpiece of the film so it’s important that it seems like someone dying of cancer wrote it, not a Hollywood screenwriter.

I wonder if Zackham actually asked cancer patients what their list would look like, and if he did, something tells me at the top wouldn’t be: “WITNESS SOMETHING TRULY MAJESTIC.” The only audience likely to be moved by that is the studio executives Zackam pitched the story to in meetings. What’s funniest about the list is it’s often forgotten about for most of the film so the two main characters can drone on and on about the ghastly pallor of death and their shattered family lives. It’s a shame because with two actors who project so much energy and an important message about embracing life, this movie could have really inspired people who have gone through a similar situation, or known someone who have. Instead, because of the script’s laziness a film that should be striking a universal chord comes off as a picture aimed only at the elderly.

Another problem is a very poorly written and even worse acted supporting character. Looking at the credits you probably think I’m talking about Will and Grace’s Sean Hayes, who plays Edward’s sarcastic but loyal assistant, but he actually gets off some great lines and his interplay with Nicholson was a highlight of the film. I wish there was more of it. The offending character is Carter’s wife Virginia (broadly caricatured by Beverly Todd), who objects that her husband is going on a silly road trip rather than staying with her and fighting his illness. That’s a perfectly reasonable complaint for a loved one to have and I commend Zackham for thinking to put it in. Unfortunately, she’s portrayed as a raving lunatic.

All Todd does is scream and nag as if she’s carefully studied clips of Thandie Newton’s performance in The Pursuit of Happyness. There’s a rational argument in there somewhere but it doesn’t come through, and as a result, she comes off as selfish and unlikable. Carter should have added "FILE FOR DIVORCE" to the bucket list. She’s so bad that when he has a chance to cheat on her with a prostitute (played by Rowena King) I was hoping he’d do it. He’s more than earned a freebie after putting up with this woman for 47 years. I found spending five minutes with her challenging. Reiner has to take most of the blame on this one for thinking it was a good idea for her to carry on like that. In attempting to give Carter resonating marital difficulties he forgot that we actually have to root for the couple for it to work.

The film fares better with Edward as he’s given a much better sub-plot involving his estranged daughter, although even that isn’t as effective as it should be because of the long-winded back story accompanying it. The film does really start to find its footing in the last half hour and a big part of that is due to Jack Nicholson’s performance, which never wavers throughout but really kicks into high gear as we approach the finish line. The list miraculously reappears as if everyone suddenly remembered there were still items left to check off and Nicholson really delivers here, almost saving the film. We know how this will end but the script does find a clever way to surprise us within the context of its predetermined outcome. Unfortunately, there were just too many problems earlier for the story to pack the full emotional punch it could have.

The two leads carry this entire film on their backs with very little help from the screenplay but I’d say Nicholson does the better work, if only because he has the more complex character while Freeman’s old wise man routine is starting to get a little too familiar. You could argue he’s just giving us another variation on his role as God from Bruce Almighty here. His character also narrates the picture, which is physically impossible for obvious reasons, but Freeman’s voice-over work is always so good I was willing to give that a pass. I

It’s impossible to hate this picture because it’s heart is in the right place and the premise and performances hold your interest. But it could have been so much more. There’s nothing wrong with a film being sappy or predictable, but for too much of its running time The Bucket List just phones its story in.

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