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Cheating death by shtick: (l-r) Nicholson and Freeman in The Bucket List.

Dead Men Skipping

By Shawn Stone

The Bucket List

Directed by Rob Reiner

It seemed like the whole film was in the trailer.”

This was the comment of a colleague who had seen a preview for The Bucket List half a dozen times in the theater, and, when told I had seen it, wondered if there was any more to it. The answer is yes and no. There is more emotional detail and genuine humor in the film than is in the trailer; however, everything The Bucket List ultimately says about bargaining with death can be easily summarized in a two-minute preview.

It begins promisingly. Two cancer patients—Carter (Morgan Freeman), an auto mechanic, and Edward (Jack Nicholson), a billionaire health-care executive—end up in the same hospital room. Both are undergoing draconian regimens of chemotherapy; both have lousy long-term prospects.

Shared misery and laconic wit lead, as in so many previous buddy movies, to friendship. The tone is appropriately serious, leavened with humor; to their credit, director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Justin Zackham don’t get cutesy with the situation.

The restraint starts to lessen once the film’s eponymous gimmick kicks in. The two kindred spirits, facing literal deadlines, make a list of things to do before kicking the bucket. Since one of them is a billionaire, the film is transformed into a travelogue as Edward and Carter jet from California to France to Egypt to Tibet to . . . you get the idea. (There’s no lack of zany behavior.) There is an interesting dramatic thread through this, as visiting places he’s only dreamed of seems to salve four decades of regrets for Carter, an otherwise a happy family man; but overall the film becomes unnaturally chipper.

Since the stars are the whole film, it’s worth comparing their styles. Freeman is one of the canniest film actors alive. Sometimes he engages, making his costars seem better than they actually are (think Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow in Se7en). Sometimes, as with Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty, he lays back and lets the star run amok. Freeman is almost never bad. As has been the case since The Shining, however, Nicholson can be brilliant or clownish. He will get away with exactly what a director will permit; most recently, he completely (and amusingly) defeated Martin Scorsese with his tone-deaf antics in The Departed. Here, the two old lions balance each other out—or maybe it’s just that Nicholson knows that Freeman can steal a scene with just a deadpan look, and he kept himself in check. Whatever the reason, the pairing works.

Two other performers make an impression: Beverly Todd’s performance as Carter’s wife has depth, and the comic underplaying in Sean Hayes’ turn as the billionaire’s assistant is invaluable.

To no surprise, the last 20 minutes are a masterfully constructed emotional crescendo in (mostly) bad taste. Reiner is so skilled at this stuff, it hurts—really.

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