While “The Bucket List” concerns itself with the imminent demise of the characters played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman — and how that terminal diagnosis spurs them to live life to the fullest — the truly tragic deterioration on display is the directing career of Rob Reiner. How does a filmmaker go from making gems like “This is Spinal Tap,” “The Sure Thing,” “When Harry Met Sally” and “Misery” to the likes of “Alex and Emma,” “The Story of Us,” “Rumor Has It” and now this wallow for the aging Me Generation?
If nothing else, Reiner seems weirdly tuned into the Baby Boomer zeitgeist — in the early ’70s, his role as Mike “Meathead” Stivic on “All in the Family” made him America’s hippie; in the early ’90s, his Castle Rock Entertainment gave us “City Slickers,” which put a big smiley-face on male menopause; and now that Woodstock Nation is pricing nursing homes, we get “The Bucket List,” which plays like Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries,” reimagined as an uninspired sitcom and travelogue.
Once the plot contrives to put super-rich Edward Cole (Nicholson) and salt-of-the-earth mechanic Carter Chambers (Freeman) in the hospital together — Cole’s company privatizes health care facilities, and two-to-a-room is an oft-repeated part of their cost-cutting credo — the two bond over the fact that they’ve got a limited time left to live. Carter starts a “bucket list” of things to accomplish before death as sort of a philosophical exercise, but soon Cole starts adding activities like skydiving and tattoos to the list. Once chemo’s over, they’re off and running, despite objections from Carter’s wife (Beverly Todd).
Next thing you know, the odd couple is watching sunsets over the Riviera, climbing pyramids in Egypt, and motorcycling on the Great Wall of China. Justin Zackham’s script provides the actors with some memorable moments, but the screenplay, like the bucket list itself, is loaded with little set-ups that turn into grandly bathetic payoffs in the final act. It’s a pity that Zackham and Reiner show such little restraint, because the early and middle parts of “The Bucket List” fool you into thinking that the movie isn’t going to turn into the Hollywood sapfest that it winds up being.
What makes the good parts work, mostly, are the efforts of Nicholson and Freeman. While not as superbly restrained as he was in “About Schmidt,” Nicholson dials down the bad-boy grins and arching eyebrows substantially.
Freeman can’t entirely get away from the sage shtick he’s perfected of late, but he makes the character more than the two-dimensional pillar of wisdom he’s played so often. (Once he starts narrating, though, audiences may find themselves suppressing a groan. If there’s a list of unbearable movie clichés for this new millennium, “Morgan Freeman voice-over” would have to go in the top 10.)
Films like “The Bucket List” go out of their way to remind us that life is precious and that we need to make every moment count. One way to do so is by avoiding movies like this one.