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    The Bucket List (2007) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | January 12, 2008

    Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman ride off into the wild blue yonder in "The Bucket List"

    Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman ride off into the wild blue yonder in "The Bucket List"

    It’s Never Too Late to Have a Mid-Life Crisis

    Rating: 3.5/5 ★★★½☆ 


    The Bucket List. Starring Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes, Beverly Todd, Rob Morrow, Alfonso Freeman, Rowena King, Anton Berry, Jr., Verda Bridges, Destiny Brownridge, Brian Copeland, Ian Anothony Dale, Jennifer Defrancisco, Angela Gardner  and Noel Gugliemi. Music by Marc Shaiman. Cinematography by John Schwartzman.  Production design by Bill Brzeski. Costume design by Molly Maginnis. Edited by Robert Leighton. Screenplay by Justin Zackham. Directed by Rob Reiner. (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007, Prints by Technicolor, 97 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13.)

    On the Amtrak between Los Angeles and Tucson, I met a German exchange college student recently. He was taking advantage of spring break to see the American southwest by rail and bicycle. As we talked over supper in the diner car, he struck me as energetic and ambitious. He planned to “see the world,” make his mark in his chosen field of endeavor (biochemistry), and marry his med student girlfriend. Yet, as we later discussed politics and its inevitable bedfellow, money, in the club car, the vast differences in the American and European ways of measuring success impressed themselves upon me.

    As an ex-military guy in his forties who’s led a quite ordinary life, I was surprised to find myself the more ambitious of the two, economically. I talked about my ideal of my piece of heaven on earth, which involved mutual fund investments, buying gold and silver, a Roth IRA, the houses I rent out to build equity and generate income. I mentioned how close I was to realizing Parts B and C of that dream, to wit, a Dodge Hemi Challenger and a primo hunting and fishing lodge on the Canadian side of Lake Superior.

    My acquaintance explained to me his economic plan of being able to generate just enough income to live with just enough floorspace, and to get about without the burden of having to own a car. To my American ears, it was shocking to hear this 24 year-old’s plans (and being a German, he was methodically building a solid foundation for his gemütlich future), which you usually don’t hear from the mouths of American men until they’ve reached their fifties and got caught up in the “simplification” craze that’s been sweeping boomers who got a late start investing for retirement.

    Indeed, we Americans are still the same pushful lot that H.L. Mencken pegged us as during the dawn of the twentieth century: always striving for a higher station in life, for fear of backsliding into failure and ruin. While the practical results of this way of thinking are often rewarding (witness the Chrysler Building, David O. Selznick’s production of Gone With the Wind, and Jerry Jones’s rebuilding the Dallas Cowboys), chasing success does not always guarantee its outcome (witness Donald Trump’s bankrupt real estate ventures, Warren Beatty’s production of Ishtar, and Jerry Jones’s re-rebuilding the Dallas Cowboys). The fate of men building an unfinished continent seems, by definition, to be saddled with perpetually unfinished lives.

    Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) is just such a man. We first glimpse him as he’s working under the hood of a car, but his palaver with a fellow mechanic betrays a well of unrealized ambitions as he lectures on Nikola Tesla’s feud with Guglielmo Marconi over the radio trade patent. Clearly, Carter was meant for bigger things in life than replacing timing chains. However, we also know that he’s about to wind up in the hospital with terminal cancer. Carter drops his cigarette when he suddenly gets a phone call from his doctor’s office. Smoking could only be grave foreshadowing in a Rob Reiner flick.

    Carter is admitted to a no-frills hospital, run by Edward Cole, an HMO operator played by Jack Nicholson. Despite his vast riches, Edward winds up as Carter’s roommate in the hospital, thanks to a plot device—Cole is negotiating a takeover bid to privatize the publicly-run hospital. To avoid negative publicity, Cole shares a semi-private room, though his assistant Thomas (Sean Hayes) caters to his culinary whims by sneaking in haute cuisine to his boss’s bedside.

    Initially, the two men’s personalities could not be further apart. Edward Cole is a doer, who barks orders to the hospital staff, and doesn’t have much time for an examined life. Carter Chambers is a do-it-yourself kind of guy and a bookworm whose daily obsession is watching “Jeopardy!” and answering each question aloud and correctly. The working-class wrench turner disdains the exotic coffees that Cole imbibes (“I’m an instant coffee man,” he informs the CEO), yet maintains an encyclopedic knowledge on the many varieties of coffee beans, about which his seemingly worldlier roommate is ignorant.

    Despite racial and class differences, though, the cancer both men have been diagnosed with turns out to be a great equalizer. Carter, who left college as a young man to attend to the responsibilities of providing for his family and seeing to his kids’ college education, begins to question whether his life has been fulfilling. Recalling an assignment his philosophy professor gave him decades ago, Carter compiles a list of all the things he truly wants to do before he “kicks the bucket.” Having written it, he crumples it up and tosses it away.

    But, when Cole finds the list and reads it, he takes an opposite tack to Carter’s cautious theorizing about living life to its fullest in the face of looming mortality. Cole’s philosophy is “we live to die another day,” and he proposes the two of them scratch the items off Carter’s list one-by-one. Carter tells his wife (Beverly Todd) “I’m going away for a while,” and we sense that over the decades the couple has fallen out of love. All she can see in Carter’s newfound sense of adventure is a bewildering death wish.

    After she leaves, Cole gestures about the antiseptic hospital room, asking, “Is that what you want? To be smothered with pity and grief? Not me! And, I believe in your heart, not you either, Carter.”

    On Cole’s dime (and he’s got as many dimes as Rockefeller), the two set off around the globe to live, as the old adage goes, each day as though it were their last. Carter at first balks at having his body desecrated, when Cole takes him to a tattoo parlor, but gets caught up in the spirit of their quest when they skydive out of a perfectly good airplane. Being so near to death, Carter relishes in the thrill of living. As he races a vintage Shelby Mustang against Cole in a Charger Superbee R/T, Carter surprises him by turning the drag race into a demolition derby. It’s a rare treat to see Jack Nicholson having the tables turned on him, and only an actor with the power and depth of Morgan Freeman can get away with intimidating perennial the bad boy, howling, “Evil? I’ll show you Evil-Goddamn-Knievel!”

    In Cole’s private jet, the two visit a travelogue of spectacular vistas, from the French Riviera, to the Great Pyramids in Egypt, to a safari on the Serengeti, to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. But, as they stop to unwind in Hong Kong, and having ticked off the last of their adventures, a gnawing feeling of incompleteness still haunts them.

    Though The Bucket List has largely been targeted at the AARP demographic, it’s a benign and inspiring motion picture that’s accessible to people of all ages, including older children. Through its characterizations of Carter and Cole, it demonstrates through dramatic situations how the thoughtful long for boldness, and the powerful secretly wish for insightfulness. There’s an optimistic, Capra-esque feel to it. This was, I’m certain, intentional, as it was produced by Frank Capra III, the famed director’s grandson.

    Like many of Rob Reiner’s best movies, such as This Is Spinal Tap and When Harry Met Sally, this buddy pic showcasing two of our greatest actors is a feel-good comedy to remember. And, although it urges us not to go gently into that good night, The Bucket List also seriously questions the exact nature of living each day as though it were our last. Perhaps that’s what we’ve been doing all along, without knowing it.

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White Magazine, Entrepreneur, Hoy! New York, the New YorkPost, RCA Victor (Japan), Scene in San Antonio, Spirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    Topics: Adventure Movies, Black Comedies, Buddy Movies, Comedies, Dramas, Movie Reviews | No Comments »