“The Bucket List” begins with a bleak, unsparing glimpse into the unraveling lives of two terminal-cancer patients and ends in unblushing sentimentality. Along the way, the unlikely pair, thrust into close quarters at a Los Angeles hospital, overcome their differences in style and temperament to become best friends and partners in an enterprise that bears all the markings of a shameless plot device.
It almost works, even as Justin Zackham’s story drifts far from plausibility. Casting Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as his leads — more a calculated business strategy than a stroke of inspiration, one suspects — director Rob Reiner takes few risks in “The Bucket List,” and the rewards are accordingly less than they might be. He asks his stars only to do what they’ve done so often. Freeman, as usual, carries himself with quiet dignity, this time as a man whose lifetime spent as an auto mechanic serves as a badge of blue-collar pride. In the other corner is Nicholson, who plays to type as an eccentric billionaire with a quick temper and a leering appetite for debauchery.
Sound familiar? It should to anyone who has ever been mesmerized by Freeman’s soothing baritone or delighted by Nicholson’s contemptuous snarl. They’re an odd couple, and Reiner handles the rocky beginnings of their friendship deftly. They eye each other warily, sparring with quick verbal jabs, but it isn’t until they’ve been stripped of their strength and pride by chemotherapy that they begin to appreciate one another.
Neither strays far from his well-established persona — Edward (Nicholson) is self-indulgent and casually disrespectful, eager to live out his final days sipping Kopi Luac in the company of his well-paid mistresses. Carter (Freeman) is a family man who feels hopelessly estranged from his wife. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of all worldly things and a spiritual acumen to match, but he has no easy answers for his own malaise.
Edward does. On his dime, they embark on a series of exotic adventures — skydiving, racing Shelby GT350s, scaling the Himalayas — that double, rather obviously, as spiritual quests. Carter, a self-professed man of faith, is open to the awakening, though Edward has his doubts. His cynicism has been hardened by a lifetime of near-total self-reliance; even the rapturous view from atop a pyramid seems unlikely to change that.
Edward does change, of course, and Carter returns to his anxious wife (Beverly Todd) with a renewed spirit and sense of purpose. (It’s hard to imagine a man like Carter, given months to live, touring the globe with a self-absorbed stranger and keeping his family at arm’s length, but the mechanics of the plot require it.) Both developments are trite and unabashedly manipulative, and what poignancy the movie achieves can be credited to Freeman and Nicholson, who are still capable of lending a measure of gravity to even the most weightless of tales.
“The Bucket List” isn’t hopelessly trivial, but neither is it daring. It begins promisingly enough as a story of friendship under extreme duress before losing its momentum in a series of far-fetched (and surprisingly lackluster) adventures. By the time Edward and Carter come to their senses, it’s too late to reel them back to a compelling reality, even for an experienced director such as Reiner.
The Bucket List
* * ½
Starring Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes, Beverly Todd, Rob Morrow
Written by Justin Zackham
Directed by Rob Reiner
Running time 1 hour, 37 minutes