No Comedy From Old Men

Gerard Corvin 21 February 2008

The Bucket List

(12A, 97 mins)

2 stars

Accordingto The Bucket List, the prospect of dying of cancer is a laugh riot – epiphanic life-fulfilment included. Such schlock might have been palatable had the movie not been so terminally unfunny. Jack Nicholson plays a millionaire cancer patient who, through an unconvincing script contrivance, ends up sharing a hospital room with a worldly-wise mechanic, played by Morgan Freeman (providing yet another sentimental voice-over). Whilst Freeman’s soothing intonations could imbue humour and pathos into a documentary about penguin migration, even he can’t convince us of the worthiness of Nicholson’s womanising, emotionally-retarded Edward.

The film is an unabashed buddy comedy and it is the winning combination of these two screen titans that sells it. Despite not looking his best, the bald and saggy-skinned Nicholson is still among the most gifted of actors in timing, nuance and his ability to seamlessly switch from comedy to sobriety.

The trouble is, this movie doesn’t know what tone it’s after, and some of Nicholson’s wisecracks come off like the unwelcome quips of a sleazy uncle at a funeral. The whole terminal illness scenario seems to exist solely so that Edward and Carter can devise a list of things to do before they kick the bucket.

This sends the geriatric duo off on a jaunt around the globe and the movie turns into a tiresome travelogue of Nicholson and Freeman having fun whilst we’re left stranded in transit. One moment they are motorcycling across the Great Wall, the next they’re half-way up Kilimanjaro, and rather than having these magnificent locations affect the characters in any meaningful way, Nicholson and Freeman seem to wander through them with the nonchalance of a pair who have a hefty paycheque rather than their own mortality awaiting them.

There is something quite unsettling about the message of Rob Reiner’s film. On the one hand, it is good to see Hollywood countering the ageism of the slough of recent comedies that have relegated OAPs to either foul-mouthed cranks or drooling vegetables. Yet, for a film that involves hospital overcrowding and the unequal medical treatment of an affluent bozo and a blue-collar mechanic, there is very little done to address America’s health care crisis. Hard luck for those not rich enough to escape the misery of a hospital ward.

Currently in cinemas is The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, a film which also centres on a character’s awareness of his imminent, equally unexpected death. Its almost completely paralysed protagonist has a rather more modest bucket list.

At one point he reflects that he would be the happiest of men if only he could swallow his own saliva. By comparison, this Bucket List offers precious little human reality amid the swill of cheap sentiment and even cheaper humour.

Gerard Corvin