By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published January 17, 2008
What would you do if you were told you only had months to live? That is the question at the heart of director Rob Reiner’s new film, “The Bucket List.”
The title of the movie comes from an assignment that character Carter Chambers received in a philosophy class in college—to make a list of things you wanted to accomplish before you “kicked the bucket.” The question becomes vital when Carter learns that the cancer he has been fighting has spread and he will likely die in only a few months.
Carter is being treated at a hospital owned by the very rich and very obstinate Edward Cole. Edward becomes his roommate when he, too, is diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. In the way of movies, the two are polar opposites but form an unlikely friendship. Some of the scenes in the hospital are the most compelling, as the ravages of the disease are treated matter-of-factly and the two men deal with it in similar ways. Carter and Edward forge a bond because they share this dreadful experience, one that their friends and family cannot truly understand.
When they find out, almost simultaneously, that their conditions are terminal, Edward convinces Carter that they should set out to complete their combined “bucket list.” Carter, who feels dissatisfied with many of the choices he has been forced to make in his life, agrees to join Edward, much to the dismay of his wife and family.
As the two men make their way across the globe, the items that they cross off the list go from trivial to meaningful. Skydiving and driving muscle cars for a thrill segue into searching for the truly majestic and re-connecting with Edward’s long-estranged daughter.
In many ways, the film is predictable: the quest to complete the list leads to enlightenment for both men, many tears are shed (both on film and in the audience), and the friendship enriches multiple lives. In spite of this predictability, however, “The Bucket List” imparts a genuine warmth, and the film generates a positive message and several laughs along the way.
Much of the warmth can be attributed to the two lead actors, two of the most talented pros working today. Morgan Freeman’s customary steadiness is the perfect balance for Jack Nicholson’s more volatile style. Freeman brings a sad sweetness to the role of Carter Chambers. Even though some of his actions may be difficult to understand, such as why he reacts coldly to his loving family, viewers never lose sympathy for his character.
Although Edward Cole is presented as a hard-hearted loner, the humor in the relationship with his long-suffering assistant (charmingly portrayed by the under-used Sean Hayes) gives a hint to what could be possible if he would open his heart. Jack Nicholson tones down his usual off-the-wall style in the role of Edward Cole, but it is still there under the surface. When he caps off his proposal that they complete the list with his trademark Jack Nicholson grin, complete with eyebrow waggle, you understand completely why Carter would kick over the traces and follow this man to the ends of the earth.
As the men progress through the list, they learn more about each other and become closer. They have several discussions about the nature of the universe—Carter is a religious man and believes in God, but Edward is an atheist. Various beliefs are discussed, each respectfully, to give a sense of how the men are searching for meaning beyond the time that is allotted to them.
The answer to this question seems to come in the human connections that each man makes. Carter learns to appreciate the warm and loving family that he has built, and Edward makes the effort to re-connect with his own family. They also learn to treasure their friendship with each other. It is refreshing to see a strong male friendship being celebrated in the film in a positive way. Carter and Edward each learn from the other’s strengths, and they help each other with their weaknesses, in the way that true friends do.
In many ways, Rob Reiner, Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson took on a very difficult task—making a film about two patients with terminal cancer that is uplifting and positive. Judging from the audience reaction, they have succeeded in touching people’s hearts with “The Bucket List.”
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.