by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & Y & lt;/span & ou know those "to do" lists you keep in different places -- at home, at work, in your wallet -- that you actually get to check off once in a while? This dramatic comedy about two terminally ill guys who meet in a double hospital room suggests that you'd better get cooking on those lists now. That song "Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think)" from Everyone Says I Love You comes to mind.
Another thing that seems to be in people's minds is that The Bucket List -- the title refers to a list of things to do before you kick the bucket -- is a morbid idea for a movie. In this case, it's a wrong assumption. There's a gloomy moment or two; these guys do, after all, have cancer, and each has been allotted six months to a year, give or take.
But the teaming of Jack Nicholson as a ridiculously wealthy but lonely corporate guy who takes over, then privatizes hospitals, and Morgan Freeman as a genial, chain-smoking auto mechanic who has a happy family but has outgrown his dreams, was made with comic head-butting in mind.
It's an opposites-attract story. Nicholson's Edward Cole is stubborn and iron-fisted when it comes to his career and to his inflated self-importance. Freeman's Carter Chambers is a laid-back but outgoing fellow who enjoys nothing more than sharing his vast reservoir of trivial knowledge, much of which he gets from watching Jeopardy!
Watching these two guys interact -- and the key term here is "act" -- is a pleasure. It's clear that both Nicholson and Freeman are having a blast reacting to the other, right from their characters' introduction in side-by-side beds. (This is part of the policy taken up by Nicholson's hospital, and there's nothing he can do about it.) They play gin, they go into temporary remission, they hop the globe, they get the shakes.
Director Rob Reiner, who hasn't has a bona fide hit since A Few Good Men (also with Nicholson), has wisely gotten out of the way of his two old-pro lead actors. They manage to put a convincingly humorous touch on a vomiting scene -- hey, you try being funny and believable while retching -- and add a mischievous sparkle to their eyes when they decide to work on their bucket lists together. When they're racing cars or pulling ripcords, they're like little kids.
The film loses some of its grip on reality when Carter decides to leave his wife at home while he goes out on this final adventure -- that subject alone would make for an interesting film. But here it's glossed over rather than dealt with.
And soon both Carter and Edward -- who's generously and easily footing the exorbitant bill -- are jetting around the world to great European restaurants, to the Taj Mahal (where Carter spouts off some detailed historical perspective) to the pyramids (where they just sit and contemplate).
Note: In recent interviews, Nicholson revealed that seeing the pyramids had long been on his own bucket list -- and still is, since the film was shot entirely in Los Angeles, with all of those destinations later added in digitally. Freeman admitted that working with Nicholson has been on his list for a while.
Comic highlights come via the teaming of and banter between Nicholson and his assistant -- and private cook -- Thomas (played in deadpan manner by Will & amp; Grace's Sean Hayes) and from Nicholson's willingness to take a couple of pratfalls.
But the film's serious edge has plenty of opportunity to shine, and does so in the "life's ups and downs" conversations between Edward and Carter that predictably bring the two opposites together. There are a couple of token thought-provoking scenes of Virginia (Beverly Todd) demanding that Edward give her husband back to her, and Freeman's practically film-length voiceovers (has Freeman ever been in a film that he hasn't also narrated?) manage to combine a sense of gravity and whimsy.
It's hard to watch the film and not think about the similar but far goofier premise of My Name Is Earl and that TV show's list of accomplishments to be checked off. But this is an Earl for a more mature audience. This also marks a probable return to hit-making status for Reiner. He turns The Bucket List into a bittersweet ride.