The Bucket List sounds promising: Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman on screen together for the first time, in a buddy–buddy comedy about dying. Sadly, although the stars themselves deliver the goods, lacklustre direction from Rob Reiner and a weak script from Justin Zackham result in a film full of sentimental platitudes rather than genuine life affirmation.
Car mechanic Carter Chambers (Freeman) and billionaire businessman Edward Cole (Nicholson) meet in the cancer ward of a hospital owned by Edward. Despite their contrasting backgrounds and personalities – the self-educated stoical Carter very close to his family while the gourmet art-collecting Edward has been married four times but is estranged from his daughter and expects everyone to obey his commands – these strange bedfellows form a strong friendship as they endure the rigours of chemotherapy. As Edward says after both of them are given one year to live, 'We’re in the same boat’.
When he sees Carter has made a list of things to do before kicking the bucket (such as 'Behold something majestic’ and 'Laugh until I cry’), he takes it over and persuades Carter to come with him while they are on remission on a wild pleasure spree so that they will 'go out with a bang’. After skydiving and racing-car driving, much to the horror of Carter’s grief-stricken wife Virginia (Beverly Todd) the odd couple embark on a grand tour around the world, accompanied by Edward’s long-suffering assistant Thomas (Sean Hayes), in a bid to live life to the fullest while they still can.
Although it has its entertaining moments, on the whole the movie is a mixture of the unconvincing and the inconsequential. Its underlying premise – that these two very different men are united by their imminent deaths, and come to terms with their mortality by sharing their last months together in experiencing what the world has to offer – is fundamentally flawed. The reason for them sharing a room in the first place comes across as an unlikely plot device (Edward has enforced a regulation of two people per room in his hospitals), while Carter agreeing to leave his family to go off gallivanting around the globe with an eccentric egoist is unbelievable.
This lack of credibility is not helped by the fact that their travel locations – including safari in Africa, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and the Himalayas. – look so fake, as the pair are obviously acting on a soundstage against these exotic backdrops. But more irritating than this travelogue brochure is the cliché-ridden dialogue which all too often the main characters speak as they discuss the meaning of life and death, the existence of God, and, um, the meaning of life and death again. The trouble is The Bucket List aspires to being a feelgood film with emotional depth but there is not enough black comedy and too much facile sentiment, leading to a ridiculous ending.
The film is made watchable only by the two leading performances. It’s true that neither actor is stretched, but they do bounce off each rather well even if they are only recycling their own well-established screen personas. Nicholson’s blustering, overbearing, clownish act is not too over the top, and is nicely complemented by Freeman’s less-is-more expression of quietly modest sagacity. The journey their characters make together may seem contrived but it’s still quite fun to have these two fine actors as travel companions along the way.