Rob Reiner's "The Bucket List" primarily prides itself on the inclusion of two A-list superstar septuagenarians in Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as the leads in a disingenuous buddy comedy about dying slowly from cancer, and is most egregious in its flippancy of life as a race to vacuously check off destinations and activities from a list. Reiner's recent outputs have aimed for unmemorable sensations of formulaic heartwarming affirmations of life amidst comic mediocrity and there's no reason to think that he might have found actually unearthed some genuine emotions here.
What does an old ruthless white corporate billionaire with hoards of women have in common with an old compassionate black mechanic still in love with his high-school sweetheart? They are both dying from cancer! It's the unfunny punchline that Reiner and his screenwriter Justin Zackham keep coming back to when the film gets to one of its many lulls when faced with difficult questions on life. Zackham is the protégé to Reiner's master of manufactured sentiments - no surprise then that the globetrotting duo of Edward Cole (Nicholson) and Carter Chambers (Freeman) mostly find themselves in front of fugly green-screens instead of the real thing. It all adds to the supreme artifice that the film languors in each time it attempts to evoke something, anything from its characters' inevitable existential struggles with their illness. But Reiner and Zackham have no grasp on true last-gasp mortality and dignity, evidenced by the empty, two-bit truisms that the film closes with.
The arrangement is easy. Cole pays for the round-the-world trip, while Chambers earns his passage by keeping him in line by reminding him of what's truly important in life. Aided by Thomas (the deadpan Sean Hayes provides most of the honest laughs in the film), the long-suffering assistant to Cole, they proceed to different regions of the world to participate in activities we don't expect to see old coots experiencing. Cue the one-note joke.
While there's no doubt that these two charismatic stars uplift the material from its doldrums, there's still a sense that both men give just about the bare minimum that their roles require from their odd couple dynamics, to the comparatively more profound realisation that they have nothing more to proof to themselves. Nicholson has played the Devil and Freeman has played God. The dichotomy between the two is so apparent that one must surmise that the script was based on the marquee casting rather than its story. Reiner leaves these two to their own machinations and it's tempting to say that the two leads play versions of themselves. Nicholson ingratiatingly blusters through his lines, with an appreciable bit of physical comedy but with a dynamic gusto bordering on overbearing insecurities that resembles roles from "As Good As It Gets" and "Anger Management", as Freeman devolves (intentionally or unintentionally is anyone's guess) into a parody of his most famous roles as The Sagacious Narrator last seen in "Feast of Love".
It is fair to say that Nicholson and Freeman have quite a bit of fun in "The Bucket List" goofing off in situations more absurd than funny. But the question still begs: How come we don't?