Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Bucket List

THE BUCKET LIST (Rob Reiner, 2007)

Rob Reiner's directorial career has been producing diminishing returns for quite some time. RUMOR HAS IT..., ALEX & EMMA, and THE STORY OF US, not to mention the notorious flop NORTH, are far cries from his work on THIS IS SPINAL TAP and THE PRINCESS BRIDE. Considering Reiner's track record this past decade, one can be forgiven for expecting the worst from the tear-jerking comedy THE BUCKET LIST. Terminal cancer patients setting off on a grand adventure to live life to its fullest? Ick.

Filthy rich hospital owner Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) and wise, soulful mechanic Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) share a room in one of Edward's institutions. Although Edward could afford and desires a private room, he needs to be accommodated like the commoners so that he doesn't bring charges of hypocrisy and bad public relations to his business.

The two men are little alike. Carter is a family man who receives regular visitations from those he loves and who love him. Edward is estranged from his daughter and not on good terms with his ex-wives. Personal assistant Thomas (Sean Hayes), who makes sure his employer is well supplied with expensive coffee and gourmet take-out meals, is his only guest.

Aware that his remaining time may be shorter than he wishes, Carter scribbles a list of the things he would like to do before he dies: a bucket list, so named because the tasks on it are to be accomplished before kicking the bucket. Edward derides the idea as cutesy, an exercise best left in a philosophy class. Discouraged, Carter discards the plan.

When both men are informed that they have six months to live, a year tops, Edward changes his mind and asks Carter to accompany him on a worldwide jaunt that will allow them to have some fun before they die. Why sit around waiting to croak when there's skydiving, car racing, and globetrotting to the pyramids, the Himalayas, and the Taj Mahal to be done?

If given the opportunity, who wouldn't want to embrace their last months with courage and an adventurous spirit; however, THE BUCKET LIST portrays rapid health decline as a playground of earthly delights. It feels more than a little dishonest--and unattainable for most people--to watch these men indulging in the high life with just the rare acknowledgement of their illnesses. The travel itinerary they keep would test the physical stamina of those in peak condition, yet off Edward and Carter go like strapping young men. Doctors are nowhere in sight.

Also largely out of the picture is Carter's devoted wife Virginia (Beverly Todd). She's relegated to the margins, a quiet reminder of whom Carter is leaving behind while he gets his kicks. THE BUCKET LIST chalks up Carter's seemingly uncharacteristic choice to empty nest syndrome, but it's a tough pill to swallow. Carter is a saint and a sage whose true purpose is to improve Edward's life rather than come to terms with his own mortality. Freeman has played the spiritual mentor role so many times that it is beyond a cliché. He's good playing the part, but that doesn't make the character believable.

Although THE BUCKET LIST shouldn't sit well on the stomach, it goes down as easily as meals through an IV. The film coasts on the inherent likability of its stars, which explains why a funeral scene is throat-constricting even though such emotion is undeserved. Reiner banks on Freeman's fatherly decency and scalawag Nicholson's redemption to get the tears flowing. THE BUCKET LIST is more effective than it has any right to be. Then again, how hard is it to draw out empathy for actors with screen personas that appeal to us no matter how phony the scenario?

Grade: C+

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