Friday, January 18, 2008

'The Bucket List' is familiar, but gets the job done

If you read other reviews for “The Bucket List,” you are likely to see words like contrived, cliché, manipulative, sappy and schmaltzy. These reviews are not wrong. “The Bucket List” is indeed all of these things, but most viewers won’t care. In spite of its flaws, the film works at achieving its modest goals.

Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman star as a couple of cancer patients with a year to live. The two decide to go out with a bang and check off all the items on their mutual bucket list — a list of all things they want to do before kicking the bucket. It helps that Nicholson is the billionaire owner of the hospital treating both of them.

Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Justin Zackham are not trying to push any boundaries here. This is pretty standard fluff, and that’s OK because that’s exactly what someone going in expects.

The reason the film succeeds as much as it does is due to the strength of the performances of Nicholson and Freeman. The two do what they do best. Freeman, who has narrated everything from Tim Robbins' redemption from Shawshank to marching penguins, once again provides narration and quiet wisdom. Nicholson does a variation on the wealthy cynic he played in “As Good as It Gets” and “Something’s Gotta Give.”

Both actors have done better work, but they are clearly having fun together and likewise it is fun to watch these two acting greats share the screen. Nicholson is the master at being over-the-top and Freeman the master at being low key, and the actors play off each other well. Standout bits include the duo sky diving and taking some vintage muscle cars for a spin on a race course.

There’s an ongoing theological conversation between the two characters that is pleasant enough, but sounds more profound than it truly is because of who is saying it. It is inevitable in a film dealing with death that discussions of the afterlife will be addressed, but what is on showcase here should’ve been either a more barbed witty exchange or a more thoughtful and introspective one. This is a minor quibble. The dialogue isn't awful, it just could have shined a bit brighter.

In the final third of the film, the plot shifts away from globetrotting adventure and focuses on Nicholson making amends with his estranged daughter and Freeman rekindling the spark that had gone from his marriage. When the film downshifts into this more sentimental mode, some may find the proceedings eye-rolling. I thought I’d be one of those people, but the film got to me. I was well aware I was being manipulated and didn’t care.

Although this is basically a two-man show, Sean Hayes has a nice supporting role as Nicholson’s put-upon assistant. Those familiar with Hayes' “Will and Grace” persona may be surprised with how effectively dialed down he is here. One of the film’s best laughs involves his character’s name. Although marginalized for most of the film, Beverly Todd as Freeman’s concerned wife makes her screen time work well. On the page she is a bit of a nag, but Todd keeps the character human.

“The Bucket List” is the sort of movie that you could nitpick and tear apart if you chose to, but why bother? No, we don’t really get any big answers about life’s questions or learn anything about being a cancer patient. A better, more serious film would attempt to explore these avenues, but that “The Bucket List” doesn’t do these things doesn’t make it bad. There are some big laughs and some big tears and you come out feeling good. Sometimes that’s all you want or need from a film.

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