I was not crying, I tell you, not crying by the end of The Bucket List. It’s just that the screening room was hot and dry and my eyes were itchy and I think it was dusty in there or else they’d just sopped the carpets in one of those industrial strength cleaners made of ammonia and that fake citrus aroma that stings your eyes. Why would I be crying at such a sappy and obvious and unchallenging Hallmark card of a movie?
Okay, yes, I have been known to get a little misty-eyed once in a while — once in a rare while — shopping for a Mother’s Day card. And I confess that that coffee commercial where the soldier son sneaks home in time for Christmas morning usually has me sobbing like a baby. But that doesn’t mean that a Rob Reiner movie could do that to me. Make me laugh, sure: The Princess Bride, This Is Spinal Tap. But his romances are just pap.
I mean, what is this, When Harry Met Sally, and Then They Die? Cuz yes, it’s two guys, one crotchety old guy played by Jack Nicholson (The Departed, Something’s Gotta Give) and one sweet and serene old dude played by Morgan Freeman (Gone Baby Gone, Evan Almighty), but it’s still a romance, still all about the “will they get together” by the middle of the movie and “will they stay together” at the end.
And sure, the staying together here means either they both die or they both enjoy miraculous remissions. Cuz that’s the premise: they’re both terminal but not quite unspry yet, and they go off and do all the things we think about what we’d like to do if we knew we were going to die soon, like see the pyramids and skydive and stuff, if we had the dough to do that. Oh, didn’t I mention: Jack Nicholson isn’t just crochety and old and dying, he’s rich, too, like megarich, like owns-the-hospital-he’s-dying-in rich, but because of the PR realities of his egalitarian health care policies, which eschew private rooms even for megarich fatcats like him, he’s forced to shack up with Morgan Freeman, who’s calm and zenlike and almost perfect and accidentally convinces his roommate that it’s time to make their bucket lists — the things you want to do before you kick the bucket — and get to crossing things off it.
Oh, it’s all so blatant, the questions raised (the script is by Justin Zackham): Who’s really the rich man, Jack with his billions or Morgan with his lovely wife and his confident and successful children he worked his butt off as a mechanic to raise? Why do we put off living until we’re dying? How do you measure the worth of your life? They even go to India, for pete’s sake, land of symbolic wisdom and spirituality and deep throbbing universal holiness. (Though they really should have run into those brothers on the Darjeeling Limited — that would have been an interesting encounter.)
I’ll warn you now: there is an estranged daughter looming over Nicholson’s story, and you can bet that subplot will end up resolving itself in much the same way that that coffee commercial deals with similarly tender family matters.
But you know what? In the end, I didn’t care. I didn’t even care much along the way. Freeman and Nicholson are gracefully charismatic, more enthralling than either of them has ever been onscreen, and then it’s double the laid-back pleasure as they create an easy camaraderie that is as unforced as any cinematic buddy pairing we’ve every seen — it’s too bad we had to wait till long to see the two of them together. (Nicholson is not very Jack Nicholson-y here at all, actually, so if you’re among the many people his over-the-top schtick tends to annoy, you needn’t worry here; he keeps it tamped down. And Freeman, well… there’s a reason why he keeps getting cast as tranquil deities and trustworthy presidents.)
And it’s inevitable that a flick like this one — sappy, sure, but with genuine heart — will strike home with everyone who isn’t living a life that’s everything they’d hoped for… and isn’t that everyone? It’s a bittersweet kick in the pants to not wait till the Grim Reaper comes knocking to get working on at least those dreams that don’t demand a mogul’s bank account. Which are the things the movie ends up reminding us are the only ones that really matter anyway.
But you knew that was coming, too.