Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A List Before Dying

Nicholson and Freeman are grumpy old chemo patients in The Bucket List

Over many years of critiquing movies, sometimes for pay and sometimes for sport, I’ve noticed that certain things make audiences laugh reflexively. Let’s call them the “three F’s”: falling, flatulence and feisty old folks. Pratfalls always make ’em roar, the more painful the landing the better. Flatulence, well, speaks for itself. And the sight of an elderly person doing something age-inappropriate, like swearing, fistfighting or riding a motorcycle — the height of hilarity. Aspiring screenwriters: find a way to work all three of these into your script! Guaranteed boffo box office.

At least two of these are featured in The Bucket List, the story of two senior citizens who bond in the hospital while being treated for cancer. I thought the trailer for this movie, directed by Rob Reiner and starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, looked promising, until it showed the men coping with terminal illness by skydiving and racing cars. Sigh — only in Hollywood.

Nicholson plays Edward Cole, the millionaire CEO of a company that runs hospitals. At board meetings, he drops references to lunching with Michelle Pfeiffer, exults in his special variety of gourmet coffee, and is fond of saying, when someone suggests the hospitals offer private rooms, “I run hospitals, not health spas.”

When he starts coughing up blood, Edward finds himself, irony of ironies, in one of his non-private rooms, alongside Carter Chambers (Freeman), an auto mechanic and trivia expert who has the tiresome habit of calling out the correct answers to Jeopardy! questions. Both men have been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Carter, a humble, hard-working grandfather, is mildly annoyed by the spoiled millionaire in the next bed, who has his assistant (Sean Hayes from Will & Grace, regrettably underused here) fetch him rich meals he won’t be able to keep down. Carter is doted on by his worried wife Virginia (Beverly Todd), and while her ministrations irritate him, he realizes that Edward, for all his success, has no visitors at all. Eventually the men bond over shared suffering and gin rummy.

Early on, Justin Zackham’s script provides flashes of grim humor, as when Edward, following a vomiting episode, looks in the mirror and muses, “Somewhere, some lucky bastard is having a heart attack.” But what follows is a descent into geriatric buddy-movie formula: grumpy old men’s road trip. Edward notices that Carter has written a “Bucket List,” containing all the things he wants to accomplish before “kicking the bucket.” Edward suggests more exciting items like “Go skydiving” and “kiss the most beautiful girl in the world,” makes his own list, and persuades Carter to join him on a journey to do all the things on their lists.

Things like this can happen only in the Bizarro World of movies. Cost is no object — “I got nothing but money,” says Edward — and Carter is willing to leave his wife alone for his remaining months on earth. It’s an unlikely thing for this character to do, but the script contrives an explanation: Carter complains that he isn’t all that happily married.

Remarkably symptom-free, the pair travel around the globe — visiting the Pyramids, dining in Paris — while the understandably frantic Virginia telephones, begging her husband to come home. The movie’s view of the issues surrounding terminal illness is, shall we say, a tad unrealistic.

So are the men’s fantasy activities. One of Carter’s lifelong dreams is to drive a Mustang Shelby, so Edward buys him one, and the two race cars while the soundtrack blares ZZ Top’s “Tush,” no doubt a big favorite of these seventy-something gents. But would Carter really crash his coveted Shelby into Edward’s car just for kicks? Probably not, but it makes noise and gets the audience laughing. Woo-hoo!

Reiner’s best days as a director, alas, seem to be behind him. What small pleasures there are here come from watching two reliable veteran actors at work, but they are not helped by a wobbly script that contains, along with a heavy dose of sentiment, such bits of wisdom as Edward’s advice on getting older: “Never waste a hard-on, and never trust a fart.”

That makes two “F’s” — I think we may have a hit!

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times,

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