Remember last year’s Oscars, when Jack Nicholson showed up at the ceremony with a shaven head and everybody said, “Ooh, it’s Jack Nicholson with a shaven head!”?
He had that done so he could play a cancer patient in The Bucket List, which comes out this week. Obviously the studio thought this would be a late-season awards contender. They convinced the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, a New York-based film critics’ organization, which rated it the ninth-best movie of the year. They’re pretty much alone in that assessment, though, because all the star power involved can’t keep this decorous weeper from plunging you into stupefaction. Nicholson plays Edward Cole, a billionaire founder of a national chain of hospitals who gets caught up in his own ruthless business practices when he falls terminally ill with cancer. Despite his loud campaign to get a hospital room to himself, the policy he established for his patients demands that he share the room with Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman), a God-fearing, educated, yet salt-of-the-earth auto mechanic with a large, loving family, in all-too-easy contrast to the agnostic Edward, who’s estranged from his only daughter. Of course, the two somehow become fast friends, and Edward’s fortune allows him and Carter to spend their last months on earth traveling the world and doing everything on Carter’s “bucket list,” an itinerary of things he wants to experience before he kicks the bucket.
The first sign of trouble is right at the beginning, when Freeman starts narrating in that familiar voice-of-wisdom tone that has gone way beyond self-parody by now. He proves to be the water to Nicholson’s oil in terms of chemistry – Freeman’s a much better match with the self-deprecating Clint Eastwood or with the occasional younger actor who can challenge him (Denzel Washington in Glory, Chris Rock in Nurse Betty). Director Rob Reiner sleepwalks his way through this material, and even the middle section, in which Carter and Edward go skydiving and auto racing, can’t nudge him to life. It has now been a full 15 years since Reiner directed a movie with any zest (A Few Good Men), and it’s probably time for him to take a break and concentrate on his sidelights in acting or politics while he finds a new shtick.
The Bucket List comes along at a particularly bad time because this season is crowded with better films about mortality. Julian Schnabel’s formally adventurous The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Andrew Wagner’s literate and complex Starting Out in the Evening, and especially Tamara Jenkins’ funny and wrenching The Savages all offer better performances and more thoughtful takes on characters facing the end of their own lives or someone else’s. Those films are all playing in Dallas right now, and they’re all worth either the trip over or the wait until they come closer to us. The Bucket List just gives you sugary platitudes for your money.
The Bucket List
Starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Directed by Rob Reiner. Written by Justin Zackham. Rated PG-13.