A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE BUCKET LIST j
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2007, PG-13, 98 mins.

Edward: Jack Nicholson / Carter: Morgan Freeman / Thomas: Sean Hayes / Dr. Hollins: Rob Morrow / Virginia: Beverly Todd / Roger: Alfonso Freeman / Angelica: Rowena King

Directed by Rob Reiner / Written by Justin Zackham.

Finally!  All of our cinematic prayers have been answered.

We now have the feel-good comedy about men dying of cancer.

If you detected dry sarcasm, then it was whole-heartedly intentional.  Rob Reinerís THE BUCKET LIST is about as sanctimoniously phony as a three dollar bill and as cheaply manipulative as a Hallmark greeting card.  This film could take top honors - if the ceremony actually existed - at the 'PATCH ADAMS Lifetime Achievement Awards' for "shamelessly contrived melodrama and falsely sentimentalized grandstanding."

You may remember PATCH ADAMS as a film that also used cancer victims to cheap, sensationalistic effect.  At the conclusion of the film slew of young, cancerous, and chemo-induced sick children rallied to the aid of the doctor with a heart of gold that was being threatened by a medical expulsion for practicing medicine without a license.  Having never suffered through cancer - but having known people who have - I at least know that chemotherapy is not fun, nor is it something that makes you want to get out of bed to risk your health further to come to the assistance of a lunatic that thinks that laughter is better to heal people than actual medical science.  The filmís schlock and teeth-grating contrivances made me want to throw up.  Itís too bad that my ticket for it did not come with a bucket. 

After watching THE BUCKET LIST it made me resentful that it did not come with one either.

The film derives its title from the concept of a hypothetical list that people would make of all of the things that one would want to do before they die...or "kick the bucket."  On top of my personal bucket list would be to not ever sit through THE BUCKET LIST again.  I am still not sure what was more unsavory about the film.  Perhaps its that we have to endure throughout the first act watching two old men suffering with cancer in a hospital bed (which is about as fun as actually being in a hospital) or the fact that the film then spirals into an inane buddy flick crossed with a road movie that goes for shoddy laughs and fallacious drama.  This is a film that wants to make you laugh uproariously at the sight of these two grumpy old men as they engage in activities usually beset for young people, not those that have just gone through months of chemo.  Then, it wants to tug at your heart strings and make you feel pity and remorse for these chaps because, after all, they are dying of a sickness with no cure. 

Then again, perhaps if I had a choice between having Patch Adams "treating" me by dancing around in a clown get-up or escaping the hospital to go sky-diving with my last few months, I would chose the latter.

Whatís even more damning is that this film stars two of the most respected, Oscar winning talents of all-time in Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman.  I would probable go on record to say that Freeman has never really given a truly horrible performance, but he has been in a lot of lousy stinkers (most recently, EVAN ALMIGHTY, UNLEASHED, THE BIG SCORE, and who could forget DREAMCATCHER).  As he did with those films mentioned, Freeman does what he can with the flimsy material in THE BUCKET LIST and - to his credit - he attempts to bring the film down to a respectable and palpable emotional level.  Nicholson, on the other hand, never achieves that same low key effectiveness as Freeman does, and his work in the film  seems stuck in full blown, camera mugging, eye brow raising, and snickering Nicholsonian mannerisms.  Itís one of his most annoyingly smug performances in a long time.

Perhaps the marketing department for the film thought that huge star power like this could elevate this material to be an effective terminal tear-jerker.  Instead, we get a film thatís a lazy, condescending, and shockingly wretched clap-trap exercise.  It insipidly tries to make us engage in some sort of New Age introspection by probing what it means to die by living your last days to their fullest.  The only level of introspection it does provide is why I bothered to enter the theatre in the first place.

The film has a buddy formula recycled down to every clichť.  We have two men that are as diametrical opposite as possible that (1) hate each other when they meet, (2) slowly, but surely, grow to understand and respect one another, (3) become close confidants and friends, (4) hit some emotional roadblocks that affect their friendship and finally (5) they reconcile and make peace with one another.  The formula is also compounded by the fact that both are afflicted with cancer and are dying.

Edward Cole (Nicholson) is a filthy, stinking rich billionaire CEO that helps run and fund hospitals.  Soon, tables are turned on him when he develops cancer and is forced to reside in a room with another man.  He has a policy of two beds to a room, no exceptions, and his assistant, played by Sean Hayes, says it would be bad PR to be in a private room.  This thinking rings kind of erroneously: would anyone bat an eye if Bill Gates was dying, but did so in a private room?  Anyhooí, in this movie logic is shoved aside to assist its formula, and also to allow Cole to meet his foil in Carter Chambers (Freeman).

Carter is decidedly middle class.  He has worked forty-plus years as a mechanic to support his wife and children.  He went to college for a few years, but dropped out to raise his family.  He is a man of simple pleasures...but heís also a genius and a trivia expert (the most inane aspect of the film is why no one ever has any sense to tell this guy, "Gee, why donít you go on Jeopardy and rake in the money" but I digress).  Needless to say, he too develops cancer and is placed in the same room as Edward.  Predictably, the two donít hit it off, but when they both get the bad news that they have six months to a year to live, they bond.  Awwww.

Oh, they also make and try to attempt everything on their combined bucket list, which involves things as perfunctory as sky diving, racing fast cars, flirting with gorgeous woman, seeing famous landmarks, and so on.  Hmmmm....I also wonder if it will involve Edward reconciling with his estranged daughter of several years, who in turn has a cute little daughter of her own.  One item on the bucket list involves "kissing the most beautiful girl in the world."  Hmmmm...you donít have to be fortune teller to connect the dots here.  Cue scene with first meeting of cute granddaughter and granddad, followed by a kiss, and then concluded by an insert of him scratching that item of the list.

Scenes of the two going to places far and wide are never really convincing.  The sky diving is fairly competent (CGI compositing sure makes it look like the duo are flying through the clouds), but later scenes with them at the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, and the Taj Mahal look incredibly artificial (placing the actors in a green screen and then superimposing footage of these landmarks never really helps sell the emotional resonance of these would-be tender and reflective moments).

Perhaps equally unconvincing is the other character dynamics and the way the film defies medical logic.  Itís funny, but when my grandfather was dying of cancer the last thing he wanted to do - or was capable of doing - was travel the world and engage in ruthlessly rigorous physical activities.  I laughed at how the film managed to make Edward and Carter go from being sick with their heads in the toilets to as healthy as proverbial horses, just in time for their spiritual trek around the globe.

Even more irksomely pretentious and implausible is Carter's choice to abandon his wife of 47 years - during the last months he has left - to hang out with his new buddy in order to go out with a bang.  Firstly, if I were dying, I would spend every last minute on earth with the love of my life and children.  Whatís so odd - and unrelentingly cruel - is that Carter decides the opposite.  In his mind, he has "earned" time to himself.  Huh?  Whatís truly sad is that his wife (played thanklessly by Beverley Todd) simply canít understand - nor can we - why Carter would desert her when he is dying.  There are scenes with her pleading and crying over the phone for Carter to return home, but he is having too much fun seeing the Himalayas and driving vintage Mustangs on race tracks.  Oh, but Carter is on a journey of self-fulfillment to rediscover who he is...which apparently does not involve the person he exchanged lifelong vows with.  This whole angle of THE BUCKET LIST made me ill.

Perhaps what is truly sad about the film is that it shows the steady decline of Rob Reiner as a filmmaker.  With the exception of the very decent RUMOR HAS IT, he has not made a truly good film since 1995's AMERICAN PRESIDENT.  For a career that has seen the likes of THIS IS SPINAL TAP!, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, STAND BY ME, MISERY, and WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, one would expect more out of Reiner than a film like THE BUCKET LIST, a would-be audience pleasing, self-help sermonizing, and emotionally powerful work about the last days of two dying men.  Instead, itís ripe with heinously concocted soap opera elements and a cloyingly pandering screenplay that is shabby in its lapses in reason and common sense.  Films like this need a delicate hand and requires, in turn, equally refined ingredients.  THE BUCKET LIST opts for scrapping the bottom of the bucket for formula-ridden schmaltz and mawkish sentiment.  Someone should have pulled the plug on this film at the development stage.  It is the poster film for cinematic euthanasia.

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