There will likely be people out there who will like The Bucket List. They will like its easy-to-follow premise, the hollow and overplayed jokes that occasionally come rumbling along, and the AARP-approved folksiness. And they'll really like Jack Nicholson
, mugging for the camera as though terrified people will forget that he's still that same devilish old scamp he's been for longer than most moviegoers have been alive. This is not to say that the reason The Bucket List is a terrible film is because there are so many people out there predisposed to liking it. The Bucket List is a terrible film because it's thinly-conceived and even more thinly-executed faux serenity for the masses whose overbearing sentimentality trivializes death in a manner that's truly disturbing, even for Hollywood. But it will find its audience -- many terrible films do.
The conceit behind Justin Zackham's cloying script is a sort of retiree meet-cute: Stick two old guys from completely different backgrounds with utterly opposite points of view in the same hotel room, tell them both they've got terminal diseases that will kill them in a number of months, and then watch them try desperately to do everything in life they've never gotten around to. Make one of those old guys Nicholson and the other Morgan Freeman
, add in a director like Rob Reiner
who's shown himself in the past to possess both a sense of humor and compassion, and it would seem that the producers would have on their hands a film sure to please nearly everybody: raunchy camaraderie mixed in with earthy wisdom that stares death in the face and dares to crack a smile. Needless to say, that isn't the case here. Article continues below
Freeman plays by far the more interesting of the two men: Carter Chambers, a lifelong mechanic and family man who also happens to be a fearsomely learned autodidact. Stoic and distant from his loving family, he's the kind of guy who's too gentlemanly to bother the hospital staff busy attending to his roommate. Nicholson plays Edward Cole, who's a favorite sort of Hollywood villain, a soullessly money-grubbing social-climber of a billionaire who cares more for his elaborate coffeemaker setup than actual human beings (in other words: probably not so different from many of the guys running movie studios). Neither actor is ultimately able to escape type -- Freeman is noble but flawed, Nicholson rascally and venal -- though for some of the film's early stretches they do at least seem to be trying; they are movie stars for a reason, after all.
If there's a point to be made in The Bucket List's favor, it's that it doesn't unnecessarily rush. To their credit, the filmmakers spend a good amount of time just with Chambers and Cole in that small hospital room, letting the odd couple warm up to each other. That way, once Cole decides that the two have to take Chambers' bucket list (an old classroom exercise to list all the things one wants to do in life) and start dashing around the world crossing things off, as horrible as the film becomes, at least you can believe these two very different men could actually stand each other's company.
Once the film gets seriously into its globe-trotting adventure segments (the Himalayas, the Taj Mahal) and extreme buddy bonding (racing cars, sky diving), it quickly starts to look less like a film than a series of travel ads targeted at active seniors. The primary difference is that most commercials wouldn't be so clearly studio-shot as this film is, with some astonishingly clumsy-looking backgrounds straining to look like a lush Mediterranean beach or the African savannah.
After the Cole-funded race around the globe, the inevitable catches up with our fair actors, and once that happens, it's a quick slide from mediocre fun-having into schlocky tear-wrangling of the worst kind, as though the filmmakers were trying to cram the worst of Hollywood into one picture. If so, they've succeeded.