Rob Reiner’s latest film is, among other things, a paean to the glories of tourism and a reflection of our persistent cultural belief that you haven’t really lived until you’ve ticked off a list of Earth’s Greatest Hits (cf.1,000 Places to See Before You Die, etc.).
In The Bucket List, Jack Nicholson plays Edward Cole, a quadruple-divorced billionaire (he calls his later wives “the sequels”) who has just been hospitalized with inoperable brain cancer. In a nice twist, he happens to own the hospital. Cole’s roommate is Carter Chambers, a retired mechanic with an intellectual streak—played by Morgan Freeman, natch—and a Jeopardy! obsession. (Writing the big boss into a shared room took a LOT of maneuvering by scripter Justin Zackham.) Carter is still married to his high-school sweetheart and has three grown kids who adore him. Edward . . . well, let’s just say that he’s a jerk and everybody hates him (cf. Something’s Gotta Give, As Good As It Gets). Obviously, this odd couple hits it off: Condemned to die within the year, they dash off a list of things to do before that happens—”See something truly majestic”—and set out on a trip around the world, bankrolled by Edward and organized by his nebbishy personal assistant (Sean Hayes, making the best of a stock role).
There’s a Knocked Up–ish sexist streak here. The Bucket List is driven by the idea that these guys need to be guys together, to flee into a fantasy world of fast cars and hot chicks. Ordinary women, it seems, just want to stop men from having fun and telling fart jokes. Carter’s wife, Virginia (Beverly Todd), is a killjoy who can’t understand why her husband wants to leave his family and spend the last months of his life with a rich-asshole madman. Kerouac and Cassady, this duo takes to the road (or the skies, as it may be) partly to see the sights but mostly to escape workaday female emotions and expectations into a masculine sphere of their own creation.
At the heart of the movie is, of course, the Jack and Morgan Show. Nicholson seems to be gunning hard for another Oscar nomination with a frenetic, tic-y performance, full of grunts and heavy breathing, that just screams CANCER PATIENT. And Freeman’s Poor But Wise Man, who narrates in plummy tones, is as mournful and wry and knowing as ever.
Both are skilled at squeezing emotion from a cheeseball script (as is Reiner, who, knowing the score, doesn’t try to rein them in), and the last half hour of the film is genuinely moving despite itself. Turns out The Bucket List is a meta-film, mostly about how these two legendary actors interact and what it means to be an actor in your own life. Even the scenery bears this out—the pyramids and cathedrals in the background look almost painfully fake, reminiscent of the big-budget studio epics of yore, movies bursting with personalities that dwarfed everything and everyone else.