Title: The Bucket List
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama
Director: Rob Reiner
Screenwriters: Justin Zackham
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes
There was a time when I would look forward to the next Rob Reiner project, but that has not been the case since at least 1999. Something has happened to him. What used to make his films rewarding and memorable was his uncanny handle on sentimentality; though unafraid to lay it on thick, he knew how to tug at the heartstrings gracefully, intelligently, breaking down our resistance. This is why The Princess Bride and Stand By Me work so well for so many people, though I am personally also fond of The Story of Us. Reiner was the master of making us shed guilt-free tears. We were being manipulated, but we didn’t mind one bit.
The note I jotted down at the end of The Bucket List, on the other hand, read: “I feel assaulted.” The latest in a series of Reiner miscalculations that began with Alex & Emma five years ago, the film contrives the sappiest plot scenario imaginable and proceeds to ornament it with obscene hysterics. By the fifth time Morgan Freeman pipes in with his patented Dignified Morgan Freeman Voiceover, backed by mournful piano notes, you may become homicidal, and no jury would convict you.
It actually could have been worse. This is a story about two dying men, Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) and Carter Chambers (Freeman); the former is a rich hospital privatization guru whose motto is “I run hospitals, not health spas; two beds to a room, no exceptions.” When brain cancer takes its toll, he is of course stuck in a room with Carter, a humble auto mechanic with a gift for trivia. They strike up a grudging friendship, and when both find out that they have only months to live, they decide to go on an adventure, doing everything they think they ought to do before they die. Thus the “bucket list”: a list of things to do before they kick the bucket.
The way this could have been worse is if Reiner had done what I had actually expected him to do, which is sanitize his protagonists’ illnesses and hospital stays to make the film more uniformly pleasant. To his credit, he doesn’t. Edward’s brain surgery and subsequent rounds of chemotherapy are plausibly awful, full of delirium and drenched in bodily fluids. Edward is treated better than his roommate, because he can pay without depending on an HMO. For a while, at least, The Bucket List does not take place in some fantasy universe, and Reiner seemingly refuses to sugarcoat the unpleasant realities of aging and dying.
Once the men take off on their globe-hopping final adventure, though, the film loses that hint of dignity. The dialogue begins to collapse into speech after dramatic speech — confessions, confrontations, dramatic revelations. When the screenplay isn’t relying on speeches, it falls back on crowd-pleasing but uninspired physical humor (hint: auto racing is on the bucket list). All is lost when we get to a ridiculous, histrionic scene outside Edward’s daughter’s house, a scene that tries to pull every emotional lever it can reach but winds up embarrassing the movie. Later there’s a long eulogy, and a voiceover that apparently sounds from beyond the grave, and it’s all just too much, an emotional clusterfuck. Reiner is unable to manage precisely the sort of balancing act that two decades ago made him a household name.
This is the kind of movie certain audiences unquestioningly go for, in the same way that teenage boys will patronize just about any action or superhero flick. If it’s in your wheelhouse, I suspect you know who you are from the trailers and maybe this review. But Reiner won’t be able to replicate the phenomenal success of his early career until he figures out what he’s lost and how to get it back. He used to be so good at this.