Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) is a car mechanic and a loving family man with a penchant for trivia. Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) is a billionaire with an appreciation for the finer things, but with an unsympathetic, boorish attitude. The two end up sharing a hospital room due to a corporate policy that Edward himself instated. Cue the theme to The Odd Couple.
Actually, in spite of their obvious differences, the two men share something important in common (besides being portrayed by popular Oscar-winning actors): both are terminally ill with the prognosis of mere months to live.
As they endure chemotherapy treatments together, Carter and Edward forge a friendship and begin talking about life and death. Recalling an assignment from his college philosophy class, Carter begins to write a "bucket list" of things he'd like to experience before he kicks said bucket. Staring at mortality, their deadlines looming, wealthy Edward makes some additions of his own and proposes that the two begin fulfilling their checklist, a journey that takes them around the world despite the protests of Carter's wife Virginia (Beverly Todd).
From there it's pretty obvious where this movie is headed. There are laughs to be had as the men live out some of their childish fantasies. Tears are shed, lives are changed. One man learns that in spite of what little he's experienced in his life, he's always had all he ever wanted. The other has everything, only to discover he has nothing. Predictable? Perhaps, but if nothing else, this movie reminds us of the importance of the journey.
The Bucket List strikes a nice balance between comedy and drama, favoring humor and poignant conversations over weepy developments. And it probably wouldn't have worked as well without two veterans like Nicholson and Freeman. Not that their performances are ground-breaking. In essence, both are doing what they do best, but in a way, that helps their characters seem more believable. We relate to them because they're so familiar.
Freeman is the friendly everyman, extolling sagely wisdom and virtue. He even narrates part of the film a la Shawshank Redemption and March of the Penguins. Carter is the model of tranquility, even when he gets the bad news about his condition. But I love the frustration he expresses as a man who gave all his time to his family for 45 years, yet now is faced with missing out on the joy and majesty life has to offer. And it also helps that Freeman's smile and laughter is so contagious.
In contrast, Nicholson is the mischievous grouch, often recalling his fine work as the aging retiree in About Schmidt. Though it's fun to see young Jack light up—signature grin, raised eyebrows—as Edward starts telling Carter about all the fun they can have together. Admittedly, you want to see Edward suffer a bit because of his attitude, and yet we feel for him as he copes with the agonizing cancer treatments. When he says, "I've never been sick before," it's delivered as a sympathetic epiphany from an unsympathetic man who to this point has no idea what it means to suffer physically. Now is that good writing or acting to draw such a dynamic response from us to Edward's character?
For sure, the writing is sharp. Nicholson gets the most laughs, though some of them only work through his astute interpretation. When Carter asks how Edward proposes to kiss the most beautiful girl in the world, he simply replies, "Volume." Equally funny is Edward's assistant Thomas (Sean Hayes from TV's Will & Grace), matching his cantankerous employer barb for barb. When Edward tells Thomas to handle his death by treating it as if it was his own, his witty response is priceless, without missing a beat.
Kudos to director Rob Reiner, who has had his share of triumphs (When Harry Met Sally, The Princess Bride) and failures (North, The Story of Us). The Bucket List is closer to the first list, and is more accessible than 2005's Rumor Has It, his keen sense of comedic timing and heartfelt delivery back on track here. And there are inventive touches, such as the weird shot of Nicholson wearing special reading glasses for lying in bed—it makes him look like some kind of bug as he receives the prognosis from his doctor.
If only there were more inventive moments overall. The Bucket List feels a little too episodic and rushed. I wish it took its time through a longer script, like The Ultimate Gift—another film showing people learning valuable lessons while facing death—because it probably would have proven more meaningful to stretch out the experiences. Instead, it all feels neat and convenient—Edward as financier with his seemingly limitless wealth, Carter as tour guide with his seemingly limitless knowledge. One moment we're in Africa, the next we're in India, the settings merely a stage backdrop for a conversation to play against. And since the scenes are so short, a travel budget would have been an unnecessary strain. Hence why it often looks like the actors are dialoguing in front of a green screen—Carter and Edward could just have easily visited the dunes of Tatooine as the pyramids of Egypt.
I still love the way this movie makes you ask the big questions. Carter and Edward share a terrific discussion about faith and the existence of God that would make a perfect springboard for the start of a sermon—though not the end. At the beginning of the movie, Carter lists the varying methods people measure their lives by, concluding that, "You measure yourself by the people that measure themselves by you." That, in conjunction with Christian beliefs, is the start of another deep conversation, for which this movie partly serves as a parable.
Live life while we can with no regrets … despite our differences, we all end up the same. We've heard it before, but this is just as much a movie about the healing we experience through fellowship and shared experience, bearing one another's burdens through all things. And the list isn't fulfilled exactly as you would expect. Which is why I can't help but wonder, when Edward and Carter ultimately "witness something majestic" on their list, does it refer to the picturesque location, or is it open to deeper interpretation? The Bucket List is not a "Christian movie," per se, but it's a movie that Christians can use and enjoy, and a charming one at that.Discussion starters
- Carter believes that "you measure yourself by the people that measure themselves by you." Do you agree? How does this compare/contrast with what Christians believe about self-worth and a live well lived?
- Who initiates the friendship, Edward or Carter? Does it simply develop because they share a room and experience? Or is there an act of kindness that sparks it? What do we learn about reaching out to others from the way these two form a friendship?
- Is there a difference between Carter "giving up" on treatment and euthanasia? Shouldn't he fight to live no matter what the treatment? Or do you believe he fights to live in his own way?
- Is Carter unfair to his wife and family with his travels, or is it that he's being fair to himself? Is it unreasonable to avoid being "smothered by pity and grief?" Could he have handled things better? How does he honor his marriage through all this?
- Edward tells Carter that he doesn't believe in God or an afterlife: "We live, we die, and the wheels on the bus go round and round." Do you feel Carter responded appropriately? Should he have pressed Edward further at that moment? Why or why not?
- How do both characters help each other by the film's end? What does Carter do for Edward and vice versa? How are they better for meeting each other? Give examples of how they bear one another's burdens.
- If you were able to know how much time you have left in this life, would you want to know? Why or why not? What things would top your "bucket list?"
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Bucket List is rated PG-13 for language, including "a sexual reference" that probably refers to one of the scenes where the two jokingly discuss their masculinity or throwing an orgy. Jack Nicholson's character hires a prostitute, but it's handled discreetly—a woman leaves a room buttoning her blouse. Both characters use profanity (including the Lord's name in vain), but Nicholson's character is particularly crass, dropping the movie's single f-bomb. The movie generally isn't too objectionable, though its mature themes make it more appropriate for adults than children.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.