There’s a hole in the ‘Bucket’

bucketlist.jpg

Are you there God? It’s me Jack. 

After a second-half career slump, director Rob Reiner has taken great pains to critic-proof his latest film, “The Bucket List.”

“I’ll pair two of America’s best-loved elder actors, give them oddly endearing eccentricities, saddle them with a terminal illness, but show how they learn to LOVE LIFE!!!” he says (exclamation marks are a necessity here).

So when a critic attempts to lay into the film for being rote and pandering, he or she will be derided for besmirching the actors’ good names and callously drubbing those dealing with cancer.

Well, bring on the hate mail.

This is “Wild Hogs for the septuagenarian set (“Mild Hogs?” “Terminal Hogs?”), and it is a TV dinner of a film – everything spooned out in carefully measured proportions, pre-packaged and cold, without a hint of spice or surprise.

The two ailing leads are a cantankerous old wisecracking coot and a gentle, grounded guru who are both diagnosed with the big C. Take a guess at which one Jack Nicholson plays and which one Morgan Freeman plays.

I am convinced Nicholson doesn’t even look at scripts to display his talents – he merely kicks back and waits for one to roll in that adapts to his persona.

It’s hard to even recall his character’s name, for it’s the same part he’s been playing on- and off-screen for the past decade. He’s shallow, he’s boisterous, and yet oh-so lovable.

Freeman, who has played everyone from the U.S. President (sigh. If only.) to God, is also in his comfort zone. Even though he’s playing a humble mechanic, he’s worldly and wise and never without a trivial tidbit to share like some Zen Pez dispenser.

Once they both receive the news, they jet set around the world (oh, yeah, Nicholson’s character is loaded, by the way), checking off items of things to do before kicking the titular bucket.

Even though they visit post-card-perfect locales from across the planet (Italy, the Taj Mahal, the Himalayas), the same scene skips like a dusty DVD – Freeman spits out some obscure-yet-meaningful factoid. Nicholson gives a witty (read: sexist) rejoinder. They share a little bit more with each other.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

You could say it plays out over and over again, but to use the verb “play” may suggest something jovial about the proceedings. Make no mistake, this is as labored as it gets. The script (by relative newcomer Justin Zackham) seems as though it was merely a template in some computer screenwriting program that was not altered in the slightest. Every “spontaneous” scream of joy, every tear of sorrow feels scripted and calculated even to which direction said tear should travel down the cheek.

Beneath this mountain of sentiment sits Reiner, a man who had a laundry list of great films (“This is Spinal Tap,” “Princess Bride,” “Stand by Me,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Misery”) before it all got buried beneath the compost of his latter-day efforts (pretty much everything after 1992’s “A Few Good Men”).

His career, like Nicholson’s, seems to be coasting on auto-pilot of late. And for both of them to be included in a film that is supposed to be about taking risks is a sadly ironic twist.

Look, there is nothing wretched about anything in “The Bucket List,” but expectations from this caliber of talent raise the bar. And because of this, a movie that is supposed to be life-affirming is rather depressing.

~ by usesoapfilm on January 12, 2008.

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