Warner Bros. // 2007 // 97 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // June 10th, 2008
When he died, his eyes were closed and his heart was open.
-- Typically idiotic greeting card-style sentiment voiced in the opening seconds of The Bucket List
Jack Nicholson's Oscars are like signposts for his life passages. The first, for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, celebrated the young, but not callow, rebel. The second, for Terms of Endearment, welcomed our guy to the land of middle-aged sexy.
Had the Academy ended its love affair with Jack then and there, he could have continued being middle-aged sexy for another three or so decades -- isn't 72 the new 28 in Boomer years? Instead, Nicholson's self-reverential curmudgeon turn in the wildly overrated As Good as It Gets brought him a third Oscar to celebrate his arrival in Geezerdom (neurotic geezer, but still able to get the nearly three decades-younger girl).
The Bucket List gives us the most geezerish Jack yet. He's not a powerful elder, like in The Departed, or an aged rake, like in Something's Got to Give, but an unpalatable combination of the two, and terminally ill, to boot. Here, he teams up with everybody's favorite sidekick/sounding board/person of reason/voiceover provider, Morgan Freeman.
Edward Cole (Nicholson) is one of the wealthiest and most obnoxious men in the galaxy. He made gazillions of dollars owning and operating no-frills hospitals, so imagine the irony when he finds himself a terminally ill patient at one of them. It would be bad PR for him to be treated like a bajillionaire at his own facility, so he shares a room with humble but wise mechanic Carter Chambers (Freeman). Since the film opens with Carter happily puffing a Marlboro, then dropping it in horror after a call from his physician, we don't have to ask about his health status.
Despite their differences -- brash vs. humble, impetuous vs. wise, mechajillionaire vs. middle class, and so on -- they bond over chemo treatments and trips to the upchuck. Carter makes up his Bucket List -- you know, things to do before "kicking the" -- which reads like something you'd see on a sitcom written by Kahlil Gibran, with last wishes like "Do a nice thing for a stranger" and "Witness something majestic." Edward's ideas are more secular, and since he's an ultraheptillionaire, he has the means to make it all happen, and soon our not-quite Dead Boys are off on a fun-filled, 'round the world jaunt, with life lessons lurking in every port.
The only fly in this slick ointment? The disapproval of Carter's wife, Virginia (Beverly Todd, Baby Boom), who'd like to spend some alone time with her husband before he kicks the...you know.
I wonder if Rob Reiner, who directed The Bucket List, and Justin Zackham, who wrote it, realized how much their film echoed Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby. Both films feature or concern:
* Morgan Freeman co-starring with an acting icon.
* Freeman narrating, with the focus of his narration being his iconic co-star.
* Fulfillment of life wishes.
* Estranged fathers and daughters.
* Substitute families.
* End-of-life choices.
* Death of a beloved character and another character the better for having had the friendship.
Of course, there's a huge difference: Million Dollar Baby is a beautifully rendered and moving modern classic, while The Bucket List is just hackneyed and pretentious nonsense.
From the opening seconds -- featuring Freeman's godlike voice extolling the virtues of Nicholson's character -- through the patently phony set-up -- because the terminally ill richest man in the world is naturally going to compromise his comfort in service of good PR -- through the contrived developing friendship to the sitcom device of "the list," to the completely predictable travelogue -- which looks like it was shot at the "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyland -- right up to the gag-inducing end, there is nothing here that is honest or fresh and not derivative. Everything is so calculated, that you know what the characters are going to do before they do.
Since this is end-of-life, devil-may-care stuff, you get all the standards: old guys jump out of airplanes, ride motorcycles, race sports cars, gorge themselves on fine foods, and have (or almost have) sex with alluring, centuries-younger women.
It's like the world's longest Geritol commercial or one of those ads for a laxative or arthritis medicine that features glowing seniors engaging in bungee jumping, pole dancing, or some other activity defies the idea of being "old." But just so we remember that this is Something Important and not just your average coots-on-holiday film, every six or seven minutes, the guys have a jocular/heavy talk about death (cremation vs. cryogenics, how ancient civilizations viewed it, that sort of thing) or a mawkish/heavy talk about their lives and loves.
This becomes particularly odious in the case of Freeman's character, who skips out on his wife and family to globe trot with newfound friend Edward. The film directs us to revel in this decision as some sort of celebration of life, but it's really just creepy and self-serving, and a final "twist" that's supposed to be a heartwarming comment on the value of friendship becomes disturbing if you give it a second thought.
Nicholson's overacting reaches new, heretofore unimagined heights; his character is a black hole, sucking the energy out of everyone and everything around him while failing to breathe life into the tired script and begging the question: why would anyone want to be in a room with this guy for five minutes, let alone travel around the world with him?
Freeman, of course, with his saint-like demeanor and stentorian tones, sees the good in this artful codger, and naturally, both men learn how to be better people from this experience. If only all our learning experiences could be funded by zillionaires, think what a better place this world would be!
Everyone gets at least one "Oscar speech," and in case you're not sure which ones were meant to be shown at the awards ceremony, Reiner helpfully cues us: Start with a medium shot of the speechmaker, then a slow pan in; cut to the person listening to the speech, reacting with a look of puzzlement or wonder; cut back to the speaker, and continue the pan until close-up; hold for long, overwritten oration; then cut back to the listener tearing up, gaping, or nodding in enlightenment. The only actor not afforded one of these is Sean Hayes, which makes him the only actor you don't want to backhand. Hayes steps away from his flamboyant Jack McFarland character from Will and Grace to play Nicholson's wisecracking, asexual assistant, sort of a 21st century Thelma Ritter.
The transfer on this disc is all right in a bland, TV-friendly way; ditto the sound, which mercifully does not play up the treacly Marc Shaiman score. In keeping with the old fogie theme, Warner Bros. gives us an old fogie flipper disc, with a widescreen transfer on one side and full frame on the other. Extras include DVD Rom options and a John Mayer video of a song from the film in which the singer is lit so badly, he looks like he should be making his own list of things to do before he...you know.
Possibly the only thing more heinous than this film is its main extra, "Writing the Bucket List." Here we get Justin Zackham talking about his inspiration -- a list he himself wrote of things he'd like to do before he kicked the...you know. Then, brainstorm! He'd turn it into a movie about these two guys who only had a few months to live. One thing Zackham might consider adding to his list is catching up on old sitcoms, since this idea has been played out on The Honeymooners, Three's Company, The Simpsons, and dozens of others, not to mention that whole My Name Is Earl concept.
But it gets worse. According to Zackham, no one wanted to buy his script, but everyone loved the idea of the list, and so everyone started to make one. Apparently for a spell, bucket lists were the new black in Hollywood. So Zackham -- so he says -- has a book coming out, something along the lines of Bucket Lists of the Rich and Famous, with people like Hayes, Freeman, Hugh Hefner, and some firefighters (just to have a range) sharing their own B-lists. Zackham is even making one of Sean Hayes' bucket wishes come true by arranging for him to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh inning of a Cubs game. For real.
Because you, too, will be moved by this tome of famous people ruminating about their imperfect golf swings and the like, there's a blank page at the end for you to make your own list of things to do before you kick the...you know.
I may have just sat through the worst big-studio "prestige" offering of 2007.
There! Now I can cross something off my own list!
Guilty. Unfortunately, sentencing would be redundant.
Review content copyright © 2008 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* "Writing the Bucket List"
* Music Video: "Say" by John Mayer
* DVD-Rom options