Running Time: 97 mins
Rated: Rated M
The storyline of The Bucket List is simple enough. Billionaire businessman Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) and working class mechanic Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) have nothing in common except their terminal illness. They meet while sharing a room in one of Cole's many enterprises, a hospital that accommodates patients from all walks of life, two to a room, without exceptions.
Grumpy Cole and philosophical Carter hit it off unexpectedly. Before long they prepare a list of things to do before 'kicking the bucket' (hence the film's title), and on Cole's money, the two men explore the world and themselves, finding happiness and healing where they least expect it.
In many ways the Bucket List is as clichéd as it sounds, a 'buddy movie' for two of Hollywood's best loved and enduring actors, on a subject that most people, with good reason, find threatening. The storyline is contrived and upbeat, and aimed at mass audiences. But for those about to pass, think again. The Bucket List rises memorably above cheap emotion mainly through the performances of its two ageing stars, Nicholson in particular.
Nicholson is a singular actor who throughout his long career has created diverse, utterly believable characters with astonishing ease. His Ed is quick-witted, irreverent, and rude, much as we've come to expect from the actor, either in real life or on the screen. Thus when Carter, a thoughtful man with an encyclopaedic memory, first meets Ed, he's more curious about the man in the bed next to him than offended by his crankiness.
Carter is a dignified black man who once harboured dreams of becoming a history professor. He accepts his lot in life, which comprises a loving wife Virginia (Beverley Todd) and several successful children (one of whom looks exactly like him, played by real-life son, Alfonso Freeman), and approaches death with a stoic fatalism. But as he watches and helps his irascible roommate cope with the rigours of their disease, this is undermined by the nagging suspicion that he has not plumbed life's depths.
Morgan Freeman makes acting look easy. He exudes naturalism and brings an innate sense of decency to all his characters. Thus his circumspect Carter is the perfect foil to Nicholson's larrikin, more adventurous Ed, whose private jet and bottomless wealth opens the way for the two men to skydive, get tattooed, race cars, fly over the polar cap, visit Hong Kong and India, safari in Africa, and trek to the Himalayas.
Most of the scenarios are improbable, Ed and Carter sitting alone on a pyramid overlooking the Egyptian desert, for instance. But think of The Bucket List more as theatre, with Ed and Carter protagonists in what is essentially a two-man play that is the very antithesis to Samuel Becket's Waiting for Godot.
The questions that Carter and Ed ask each other are profound, yet within the context of the drama, completely plausible: Have you known joy? Have you given joy to others? Heaven depends on an answer, says Carter, and although we see through Carter's interactions with his family and his conversations that he is a man of faith, there is no sense at all that he means heaven in a narrow, literal meaning of the word.
The Bucket List begins with Carter in voice over wondering: How do you measure a man's life? The answer to this question is not clichéd at all, and neither are the performances that make this slick, well-scripted film so entertaining and meaningful.
Village RoadshowOut 21st February
Mrs Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.