Here’s a movie that feels like you’re sleeping through it even as you watch the thing. “The Bucket List” casts Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two 70-year-old cancer patients with only months left to live and a list of unsampled experiences they’re determined to savor before they, you know, kick the bucket.
Nicholson plays Edward Cole, an abrasive multi-millionaire with four ex-wives and a daughter who hates him. Freeman is Carter Chambers, an amiable auto mechanic who basks in the love of his wife and kids. Edward and Carter are sharing a hospital room (as if) when the dismal diagnosis comes down, and as Carter starts working up his sappy list — “witness something majestic,” “laugh until I cry” — Edward offers to finance a last-chance globe-trot in order to check off each goal.
There follows one of those around-the-world travelogues that clearly never pulls out of Port Hollywood, with the two men touching down in such prosaic CGI destinations as Egypt (gotta see the pyramids), India (the Taj Mahal) and China (the Great Wall). They also hit a tattoo parlor and take a shot at skydiving. For a pair of cancer-wracked septuagenarians, they’re astonishingly spry.
Naturally, there’s also talk of God and faith and death — subjects of eternal human concern. Unfortunately, they’re touched on in such a perfunctory fashion that you wonder why the script even bothers to bring them up — unless it’s simply pandering to the senior citizens who would have to be this movie’s target audience.
None of these problems might have mattered so much if Edward and Carter were actual characters. But apart from some perfunctory quirks (Carter is a trivia buff with an obscure factoid for every occasion; Edward has a fetish for Kopi Luwak, the world’s most expensive coffee), they’re actually little more than walking inventories of carefully counterpoised clichés. The minute we learn of Carter’s unwavering devotion to his wife, we know we’ll soon see Edward getting goatish with a hot flight attendant. And when we witness Edward shedding lonely tears in his cold, glassy mansion, we know it’s a cue for a scene showing us Carter and his loving family at dinner around a long table groaning with good home-cookin’. (The big Norman Rockwell turkey is an especially shameless touch.) Director Rob Reiner ladles on the mush like lumpy gravy.
Reiner may have hoped that the movie’s crucial deficiencies — its lack of laughs, plot logic and, most of all, energy — would be eclipsed by the sheer star power of its two leads. And indeed Morgan Freeman’s magisterial decency is at full glow — but then, it always is. As for Nicholson, his descent into heedless muggery isn’t quite so alarming here as it was in “The Departed,” but it’s still a dismaying thing to see in such a great actor. He deserves a better movie. But who doesn’t?
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