Here's One Less Thing to Do Before You Die: See 'Bucket List'

Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as self-caricatures -- uh, make that dying cancer patients -- in the slick schmaltzfest.
Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as self-caricatures -- uh, make that dying cancer patients -- in the slick schmaltzfest. (By Sidney Baldwin -- Warner Bros.)
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By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 11, 2008

When Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were whipping up their now-70-year-old musical souffles, it was always said that Fred provided the class, while Ginger provided the sex. This raises a question, however obliquely, about 70-year-old actors-cum-tap-dancers Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. What do the poster boy for juvenile delinquency and the first black president (in our dream life) bring to the table? In the bookkeeper's logic of Hollywood, they provide a reason to make a movie. And in the case of "The Bucket List," no reason at all to watch one.

The lowest of high concepts, "Bucket List" is about two old coots with terminal cancer who decide to live out a few last-minute thrills before kicking the bucket (see title). It's a kind of "Wild Hogs" for people who watch Charlie Rose, and couldn't possibly have been made without someone going into a meeting somewhere in Greater L.A. and saying, "Nicholson! Freeman! Sky diving!" while everyone else in the room, including epic schmaltz-vendor (and this film's director) Rob Reiner, stood up and saluted. An ostensibly feel-good film, "Bucket List" will certainly make you feel good if you empathize enough with its stars. The idea that, at this late stage of their careers, Freeman and Nicholson still wield the kind of clout to allow them to travel the world and visit such picturesque places while doing so little, might possibly make one feel warm all over. It's a sharing experience, as if we're all on a cruise to nowhere, except no one comes along to serve you beef tea or adjust your deck chair.

It also makes one grateful for the Writers Guild strike, because at least we know, at the moment, nothing like this is being made.

What's it really about? Life! Living! Living life!! And making the most of death. Nicholson is Edward Cole, a robber-baron type who's gotten rich via privatized health care and finds himself hoist with his own petard: As pointed out by his PR man, Thomas (a piquant Sean Hayes), it would be unseemly for Edward to be given a private hospital room when all along he's been preaching double occupancy. So he finds himself rooming with Carter Chambers (Freeman), a garage mechanic who can answer all the questions on "Jeopardy!" and is thus presumed to be an underappreciated genius. Carter, like Edward, finds out he has terminal cancer.

So Carter makes a list -- "Laugh until I cry"; "help a complete stranger for the good"; "see something truly magnificent." Instead of suggesting that Carter start raising money for PBS, Edward says they should make a much more practical list -- "drive a Shelby Mustang," for instance, or climb the Himalayas -- and go out with a bang. And Edward will foot the bill.

"The Bucket List" is a buddy movie, and like all buddy movies, it requires women to be rendered useless, perhaps insufferable, and, if at all possible, nasty. Edward has had several less-than-successful relationships ("The woman thought mayonnaise came from a plant," he says of one ex). Carter's wife, Virginia (Beverly Todd), with whom he's not that happy to begin with, makes Carter's illness and bucket list all about her, and thus propels him into the arms of Edward. So to speak.

"The Bucket List" is very professionally made -- Reiner has never had much of an eye, but his cinematographer, John Schwartzman, does. The overall sense, however, is of a movie coasting on an obvious and somewhat flimsy premise, to which no one thought to bring much else besides Nicholson and Freeman. Each man is playing his own cliched persona -- nihilism vs. nobility, mischief vs. morose introspection, arrested adolescence vs. ageless wisdom. No need to explain who is who, which is part of the movie's very tired problem.

The Bucket List (97 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for profanity and a sexual reference.

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