Released on Christmas Day, Rob Reiner’s latest comedy is something of a holiday miracle. Prior to seeing it, I wouldn’t have believed it possible for a single film to squander the talent and cachet of so many living legends.
Think Grumpy Old Men with bedpans. A treacly Hallmark card of a movie, The Bucket List features Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as codgers with little in common besides terminal cancer.
Nicholson plays a health-care CEO who’s made billions buying up hospitals and turning them into no-frills assembly lines (“Two beds to a room, no exceptions” is his motto). Thanks to a shameless script contrivance, his business plan comes back to bite him when he starts coughing up blood, is rushed to a facility he owns for brain surgery, and finds himself bunking with a total stranger. Yeah, that could happen.
Freeman’s his roommate. His character is a car mechanic, but you get the sense that’s only because in his town career opportunities as soulful wise men were in limited supply.
The mismatched duo bonds in no time flat. Given a year to live, Freeman and Nicholson respond to the death sentence by assembling a list of wild and crazy things to do before the sands of time run out — go skydiving, drive a high-powered race car, visit the Pyramids, etc. Justin Zackham’s screenplay expands the traditional stages of dying to denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance and hijinks.
Money’s no problem. Jack bankrolls their fiesta of wish fulfillment. In shockingly short supply, however, are laughs and fresh ideas. Rarely has Reiner crafted a comedy with as little artfulness. The filmmaker puts his stars through their heart-tugging paces, apparently oblivious to the production’s staggering lack of charm.
Deprived of virtually anything funny to do or say, both performers are forced to play caricatures of themselves. Freeman dispenses “smell the roses” platitudes and provides a trademark Shawshank-style voice-over. (Spoiler alert: Reiner’s so lackadaisical here that he allows Freeman to narrate the goings-on even after he’s been cremated.)
Jack is a sadder sight. Reiner’s direction of the actor is a mess. His character’s supposed to be an “all work, no play” S.O.B. But, barely half an hour into the picture, the actor abandons the hospital-buying hardass shtick in favor of a greatest hits collection of classic Nicholson gestures and facial expressions. Without explanation, Scrooge suddenly morphs into a skirt-chasing, eyebrow-arching hellraiser, a sort of geriatric version of Cuckoo’s Nest’s R.P. McMurphy. The only elements less realistic than the character’s overnight transformation are the film’s CGI-heavy showcase sequences.
Those scenes in which the two dying men squeeze the last drops from life aren’t merely dull and corny, but poorly staged and unconvincingly computer enhanced. Watching Freeman and Nicholson share personal philosophies atop an Egyptian landmark, for example, loses a good deal of its poignancy when it’s evident the exchange was shot on a green-screen Hollywood soundstage. Ditto their jump from a plane and treks across the Himalayas and Africa. The film is such a crock even the zebras aren’t real.
A career low for the director and his two leads, The Bucket List is the most condescending, instantly forgettable kind of schmaltz, and all three artists should know better than to waste their time — and ours — on a project this trifling. If the movie gets one thing right, it’s that life is far too short.