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'List' full of cliches instead of surprises

December 25, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

"The Bucket List" arrives on Christmas Day to remind us to live life to its fullest and leave no cliche unturned. And while most of us would confess to not exactly seizing each day as if it is our last, another cloying reminder from Hollywood is probably not going to make any more of a difference than an afternoon spent on the couch with Dr. Phil and Oprah.

A travelogue of triteness that demands alliteration to describe it, the movie is clearly aimed at fading boomers with its story of two older men with terminal medical conditions. Its watchability almost entirely depends on your tolerance of Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson doing the things that made them stars and won them Oscars, only much more so.

We meet Freeman doing a voice of God narration against the backdrop of the snow-covered Himalayas -- I know, you want to groan, but he really is good at this kind of thing -- that introduces us to the inscrutable concept that when all is said and done, you measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you.

An auto mechanic, incessant reader, trivia buff and annoyingly vocal player of "Jeopardy," Freeman's Carter Chambers is an outwardly contented man in his 60s, with a 45-year marriage and three children of whom to be proud.

Nicholson is Edward Cole, a healthcare mogul known for the fiscally lean management of his hospitals, which he declares are not health spas and decrees that there will be two beds to a room, no exceptions. He prides himself on drinking the world's most expensive coffee and his inability to stay married.

Carter gets the phone call about his test results at the garage, with director Rob Reiner lingering for an almost comical amount of time on the ashes of his burning cigarette. Edward starts coughing up blood at a board meeting where he is trying to take over another hospital.

Before you can say "Odd Couple" -- Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon almost certainly would have been cast in this 10 or 15 years ago -- these grumpy old men are sharing a room in one of Edward's facilities. No exceptions, remember?

Carter is accepting of his fate, but he's prodded by his wife, Virginia (Beverly Todd), a nurse, to take a more aggressive tack in fighting the illness. Edward is simply irritated, bullying his loyal assistant Matthew (Sean Hayes), whom he insists on calling Thomas, into helping him maintain his luxurious lifestyle while undergoing chemotherapy.

The superficial differences in economics and disposition give way to an uneasy bond as the two men share a limited life expectancy and a fondness for cards and reading. They fall into a kind of platonic man-love -- for this is, essentially, a love story -- a mite too quickly, and as the sentimentality mounts, you miss their initial bickering.

Edward catches Carter making the list of the title -- things to do before you kick the bucket -- and challenges him to make the philosophical exercise a reality. Against Virginia's wishes and abetted by Matthew and Edward's deep pockets, Carter and Edward embark on a globetrotting pursuit of thrills and experiences. They skydive, race cars and visit France, Cairo and Hong Kong via some laughably poor visual effects.

Rob Morrow costars as Edward's doctor, but his appearances are so brief you have to wonder if his part was left on the cutting room floor. In fact, the film is so eager to get its two stars out of the hospital and on their journey, at the expense of narrative logic, that you have to wonder if they simply lopped off a huge chunk from the first half of the film.

Freeman and Nicholson make the most of Justin Zackham's script, but there just isn't enough substance behind their characters to prop up the carpe diem platitudes. The result is a semi-comedic, geriatric "Brokeback Mountain" minus the sex and with a Himalayan summit. If that isn't enough, the filmmakers really rub it in with a John Mayer song over the end credits.


"The Bucket List." MPAA rating: PG-13 for language, including a sexual reference. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. In selected theaters.

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