“The Bucket List” is a cheery cancer comedy with a drippy tearjerker ending, which might not sound like fun to you, but I bet your parents will love it. It’s the kind of movie that people’s parents love. It has just enough vulgarity to make undiscerning audiences think they’re watching something “sophisticated,” along with the sort of “Grumpy Old Men”/”Odd Couple” humor that has been a surefire laugh-getter for decades. In fact, some of the specific jokes have been getting laughs for at least as long as I’ve been alive.
It’s the first time that Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, both 70-year-old Oscar winners, have appeared in a film together. Maybe it’s fitting, for such a momentous occasion, that they each play exactly the same type of character they’re famous for. After all, a milestone like this is no time to be trying something new.
Nicholson plays Edward Cole, a surly, rascally millionaire who’s been married four times and still loves the ladies. Freeman plays Carter Chambers, a wise, calm grandfather who’s been married to the same woman for 45 years. He narrates the film, too, of course; Morgan Freeman cannot be in a movie without also narrating it.
Edward and Carter are terminal cancer patients who decide, after being given less than a year to live, to make a bucket list, i.e., an itemization of all the things they want to do before they kick the bucket. The list has most of the activities you’d expect (skydiving, seeing the pyramids, etc.), and Edward’s unlimited financial resources enable them to travel in style all over the world, accompanied by Edward’s unflappable assistant, Thomas (Sean Hayes).
There isn’t much conflict inherent in the story — Edward and Carter like each other; why else would they take a world tour together? — so screenwriter Justin Zackham must invent some. First he makes Edward generally cantankerous and dismissive of Carter when the two are roomed together at the hospital; that attitude gives way soon enough. Once they’re on their trip, Carter tries to make Edward reconcile with his long-estranged daughter, while Edward tries to get Carter to return home to his wife.
Which brings us to one of the film’s major deficiencies: Carter’s relationship with his wife, Virginia (Beverly Todd). Everything we see between them suggests love, affection, and complete devotion. Yet when he learns he has just months left to live, he embarks on a world tour with a man he just met. Virginia is understandably upset. She tries to get him to come home and he refuses. When he finally does return, he acknowledges the trip’s benefit to his character: “I left a stranger and came back a husband.”
Really? Was his relationship with Virginia on the rocks before? Was he failing as a husband? If so, that would be a good thing for you to tell us, movie. It doesn’t do any good to announce that your character has improved if you don’t first tell us that he’s lacking.
Nicholson and Freeman are fine, naturally, giving the type of just-good-enough performances that they can do in their sleep and still charm audiences. You can almost overlook the inconsistencies in their characters: Edward’s sudden enthusiasm for the bucket list and Carter’s sudden timidity both feel contrived, but the actors’ zeal nearly compensates for it.
Rob Reiner, whose last really good film was in 1995 (“The American President”), does not improve his directorial losing streak with “The Bucket List.” A few bits of dialogue produce chuckles, but the bulk of the humor is obvious and pedestrian. Reiner also cannot reconcile the wildly different tones of the movie: buffoonish comedy one minute, treacly life-and-death melodrama the next. The whole thing is shallow and brainless. If two no-name actors were playing the leads, the film would rightfully be ignored altogether, if it even got made to begin with.
C- (1 hr., 37 min.; )