The Bucket List (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
One of the oldest jokes in Hollywood describes the five stages of an acting career: 1. "Who's John Smith?" 2. "Get me a John Smith type." 3. "Get me John Smith." 4. "Get me a young John Smith." 5. "Who's John Smith?"
It's sad but true, this commodification of a would-be artist. But there's an unnamed career stage that's even sadder still. It's afflicted Gene Hackman, who's been recycling the same twinkle-eyed sleaze for a few years, and Christopher Walken, who's proven a go-to for non-sequitur quirkiness.
The Bucket List finds Morgan Freeman there, too, and taking fellow Oscar-winner Jack Nicholson along with him. This is the unspoken sixth stage of a veteran actor's career.
It's clear from the opening moments: Freeman's voice introduces the story as we glimpse a figure in a parka climbing a snowy mountain, and wonder if the marching penguins are nearby. A quick flashback later, we're introduced to Freeman's character, an auto mechanic named Carter Chambers who has just learned that he has cancer. He sits in his hospital bed, radiating that faintly weary dignity that has become almost oppressively connected to Freeman.
Sharing Chambers' hospital room is Edward Cole (Nicholson), the billionaire CEO of the private health company that runs the hospital, whose personal assistant (Sean P. Hayes) insists that getting a private room would be bad public relations. Cole is an insensitive, philandering bon vivant who greets life with a grin and a raised eyebrow. In short, he's playing Jack Nicholson.
Soon, he befriends Chambers, and when the two men get word that their prognoses are bleak, Cole offers to finance an end-of-life adventure to do all the things they promised they'd get to someday.
Screenwriter Justin Zackham gives his two protagonists just enough additional substance that it might seem he's trying to subvert the actors' types. Chambers is a trivia junkie whose obsessive need to absorb information hides a fear that he's never accomplished much with his duties-of-a-father-and-husband life; Cole has an estranged daughter and nothing to keep him company but his money.
It's an autopilot tale of personal growth and uplift, interrupted periodically for broad gags involving the two stars racing around in stock cars, or jumping out of airplanes. Everyone including director Rob Reiner, who clearly will never again display the talent he showed 20 years ago with The Sure Thing, The Princess Bride and This is Spinal Tap appears to have enjoyed their globe-hopping holiday at Warner Bros.' expense.
But even if you happen to enjoy the kind of grumpy-old-terminally-ill-men shenanigans on display in The Bucket List, with its life-lesson bullet points and grudgingly earned mutual affection, you have to find it depressing to watch two once-great talents relegated to what is clearly paycheck work. (It's unfortunate that not everyone can wrangle the kind of late-career switch that has found Robert De Niro becoming a comedian.)
The Bucket List is an example of Hollywood doing what it does best: packaging elements in a way comfortably familiar to its target audience. How sad that two of those "elements" are talented men, and the "package" is a box in which they may be trapped.
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