Sometimes sentimental is O.K. Sometimes sentimental is a welcome respite. Overly emotional or even pedestrian pathways can be a powerfully moving and particularly effective means of dealing with serious subjects, let alone terminal illness. Not every film about a particular place or time in history or subject has to be true to one an all but rather a starting place, a line in the sand, where one can engage in familiar or taboo themes, however painful or rewarding. Sometimes films can accomplish both. Reviewers, however, are fond of dismissing stories that contain the least bit of maudlin, choosing instead films no one will see simply because they agree with the manner by which the subject is handled. Bringing the subject of death and dying to mainstream audiences is a tricky task and while this film is wrought with missteps, as most films invariable are, the breadth and emotional complexity of the performances allow us to forget for a little while that the main characters have terminal illnesses and if given the chance, if offered an opportunity, we too might act similarly or hope we would. The Bucket List is classified as a comedy-drama and for that it walks a fine line that will not reach everyone, healthy or otherwise, sad or happy, but if cinema is as Alain Resnais once said, “a manipulation of reality through image and sound” should it not also include the emotional and psychological consequences of such exploitation?
Overly emotional is a double edge sword that sweeps wide and works two ways; on the one hand it reaches a broad spectrum of the movie going public on many levels and that equates to success, dare we call it by its name: box office dollars. On the other hand, it can be heavy or light, it can be too much or not enough, and like a dull blade it can be blunt and overt with a delivery more akin to a baton swung wildly that misses frequently. If you’re lucky the emotions find you in the belly and maybe you laugh or they tickle your side and you giggle at the absurdity of what you’re watching. Or maybe the emotions hit you higher, cut deeper, and you feel it in your throat, you choke a little because you’re reminded of a fond memory or a sad one that gives you pause. Life is like a sucker punch, a dupe, and you’re lucky if you get a handful of moments to think about where you’ve been and what you’ve done before the unavoidable collision and the lights go out. A movie like The Bucket List is supposed to catch us off guard about a subject no one really wants to talk about and rarely do before they have to, and for a little while we are forced to face mortality and laugh a little in its face.
If you’re a fan of Jack Nicholson there’s little doubt you haven’t seen The Bucket List (2007) co-starring Morgan Freeman as two terminally ill men who embark on an unlikely buddy road trip with a “bucket list” – also known as a “things to do before you die” as in before one ‘kicks the bucket’ wish list. Rob Reiner (A Few Good Men, Stand By Me) directs with a script by Justin Zackman (Lights Out, Going Greek) and while critics were mixed, the film went on earn nearly $200 million dollars. It’s a challenge to take a subject like death and dying and make a comedy out of it, much so when the disease is cancer and the care of the terminally ill is presented from opposing sides of the socio-economic scale – Freeman plays a blue-collar worker to Nicholson’s millionaire. The reason The Bucket List works as a film is quickly apparent in the palpable chemistry shared by Nicholson and Freeman. I am reminded of such other successful onscreen duos like Gibson and Glover (Lethal Weapon franchise), Chan and Tucker (Rush Hour franchise), Freeman and Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby). Of all the handling that goes into a film there is no manufacturing chemistry and it is in no short supply between these veterans. Rob Reiner’s sense of verisimilitude infuses the story with humanity and honesty, with the quirky and the ridiculous as universal truths that are not bound by any one given faith, belief, or happenstance. His films are often about characters that embark on internal and external journeys that have less to do with where they are going as with the uniqueness of their choices and the way ordinary imparts truthfulness and forms the foundation for drama with funny bits thrown in.
We’re given the setup in the title so there isn’t much time or need spent setting things in motion which the film is better for. Some, including Roger Ebert (who was suffering from cancer at the time) were highly critical of the film and expressed deep resentment in the way terminal illness was used more like a plot device than with sincerity and the austerity grave conditions deserve. Coolly and collectively at times, Reiner keeps the gravity of the character’s condition always nearby but with the care of a surgeon manages to keep the implausible in check as the adventures of the buck list unfold. I think it is safe to say we bring our own luggage to the theater with us, relying on what we know or have experienced to enlighten as much as balance, to tell us when something is honest or disingenuous. I don’t suspect either the filmmakers or the actors intended to solve the dilemma of dying nor had in their plans to make a comedy-drama that explored the silly side of death or the profound manner in which we pass on to the other side – whatever that might be. To cite an often overused and clichéd expression, The Bucket List is first a journey and clearly the characters learn from one another while sharing their own ‘side of the tracks’ stories and anecdotes, but along the way there is a transformation that takes place. What begins as a story about two completely different people dying from the same disease becomes a way for the audience to cross their own boundaries and perceptions, to find common in the uncommon, to make something where nothing had been only moments before. Films of this nature are rare and subtle in the way in which they appeal to audiences at levels not always immediately available. People go to the movies for all sorts of reasons, some to escape their own entanglements, others to laugh and cry, while others are looking for an opportunity to connect with truthful human experiences told through imaginary circumstances. Often elevated, rarely the same for everyone, the connections we make with the characters on the screen help us to know ourselves and sometimes, if we’re lucky, something about others too.
Morgan Freeman went out of his way to express that he did not believe this film was a story about dying but rather the opposite; not so much about how to live but how one lives. Nicholson added in an interview that he had no intention of approaching this film from the perspective of either a sick man or a dying man but rather a character faced with choices and opportunities. The Bucket List is a film that resonates slowly, quietly, and long after the credits have scrolled and the theater has emptied one might ponder their own mortality and morality, just a little, and have been offered an opportunity to laugh a little despite the inescapable. Jack Nicholson, quoting his first acting teacher Jeff Corey who told him once of acting, “Your job is to provide a stimulating point of departure.”
After a considerable pause I would add, what a wonderful way to think of a film about living.