You want to start a movie off right? Hire Morgan Freeman as your star and then open the flick with some smooth Freeman voice-over. In this particular case, the film doesn't really need the narration, but there's just something so comfortable about Mr. Freeman's vocal chords. So obviously we're off to the right foot here: The Bucket List stars the endlessly cool Morgan Freeman -- as well as the famously entertaining Jack Nicholson. Already this movie is entertaining by default ... but we have two more very important components to check on before we get rolling.
The director is Rob Reiner, a man who definitely knows how to make good movies -- even if he hasn't really done it in over a decade. And the screenwriter is a relative newcomer ... so that's where I choose to focus. After all, The Bucket List is a movie about two terminally ill cancer patients who decide to hit the road, travel the world, and check all the items off their "bucket list" before the reaper finally comes calling. In the hands of a hacky screenwriter, this movie could easily become Grumpy Old Men 3, complete with oh-so-hilarious profanity, a bunch of Viagra gags, and a tacked-on and completely unearned emotional "payoff."
So what a pleasant surprise it is to learn that A) The Bucket List is Mr. Reiner's most satisfying film in a very long time, B) Justin Zackham's canny screenplay avoids schmaltz and artifice at (almost) every turn, and C) that Freeman and Nicholson strike an on-screen chemistry that's simply joyous to behold. I knew I'd enjoy the leads, but the movie's got a few more assets than that... Nicholson plays a (very) wealthy businessman named Edward Cole, who, after spending some time in a hospital room with lifetime car mechanic Carter Chambers (Freeman), decides it's time to wring just a little extra juice out of life -- and since the men have about 18 months left to live (between them), there's obviously no time like the present. Along for the ride is a sarcastic assistant (the generally manic Sean Hayes, who is quite likably subdued here), but while Cole is a single old rascal, Carter has a very devoted wife (and three grown kids) waiting for him at home... And that's the basic set-up.
What's most impressive about Zackham's screenplay is not just that it avoids the 'push-button' tear-jerk scenes, but the way in which he actually predicts your expectation of those scenes. (Does that make sense?) In one key scene, we fully expect some sort of tearful reunion -- but instead we get one of the main characters explaining that such a "Hallmark moment" could never happen. The movie's just a little bit smarter than one would expect from a typical two-hanky older-crowd-pleaser.
But even if the script weren't just a little sharper than we're used to, I'm pretty confident that we could watch Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson go sock shopping and it would make for a fun time. Individually, they're two of the most magnetically entertaining actors alive; together they're really quite fantastic. Jack gets to do his sarcastic wild-man routine -- just a little. And Freeman gets to do his sage old gentleman bit -- for a while. But best of all (and another gold star on Zackham's screenplay), both actors get to be a little silly, a little straight, and a little dead-serious. As Cole's quietly sardonic assistant, Hayes is particularly impressive; his character pops up only once in a while, delivers some required plot points (and a few chuckles), and then fades into the background. Clearly this film is Nicholson and Freeman's show all the way, but Hayes adds just a little extra color to the show.
Although clearly made with a certain demographic in mind (and by that I mean "people around the current age of Sir Nicholson and Master Freeman"), I suspect The Bucket List will earn fans on all ends of the "age spectrum." It's a surprisingly confident mixture of humanity, humor, and simply sincere emotion. I expected a lot of schmaltz and saccharine, but was pleasantly surprised to learn that there was none to be had. OK, maybe a little.
...ah, and the flick ends on one really great line ... of (you guessed it) Morgan Freeman narration.