The Bucket List

I bet you’ve seen a Rob Reiner film, even if you don’t know it.  One of Hollywood’s seminal dramatic/comedic talents, he has been making movies for decades, and though his name doesn’t have the box-office draw of a Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer, or Gary Marshall, he is like the tortoise to their hares.

Rob Reiner: Director, Producer, Actor

Rob Reiner: Director, Producer, Actor

Time after time he consistently puts out good, sometimes great, movies with well-rounded characters, moving storylines, and usually manages to pull top-notch actors into his projects too.  Consider the following résumé:

  • This is Spinal Tap
  • Stand By Me
  • The Princess Bride
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Misery
  • A Few Good Men
  • The American President
  • The Story of Us
  • Alex and Emma

This is just an excerpt mind you, and it doesn’t include Reiner’s extensive array of acting and producing roles either.  He certainly has a way of bringing stories to life and infusing his movies with charm, intelligence, razor-sharp wit, and endearing (if not always likable) characters.

The Bucket List, starring two longtime Hollywood heavyweights Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, is somewhat of a curiosity, especially given its pedigree.  The story is fine, the acting is good, the emotional heartstrings are well-plucked…but something is ultimately missing from this tale of two men making up for lost time.

Freeman plays Carter Chambers, a mechanic with the smarts of a Harvard graduate, who always let life get in the way of following his ambitions.  He has spent his years dutifully providing for his family while allowing his marriage to stagnate and children to grow up with a father (now a grandfather) who is merely existing, not truly living.  While in the hospital recovering from a recent cancer treatment he meets Edward Cole, a Richard Branson-esque billionaire hospital owner (oh, the irony!) who has spent his life in pursuit of fleeting pleasures and the almighty dollar, at the expense of a family or any real personal relationships.  Cole, wonderfully brought to life by Jack Nicholson who provides the right balance of dark humor and sarcasm, convinces Chambers to write down the things he has always wanted to do before he dies, and as soon as the two of them are well enough to leave the hospital, the take off for a jaunt around the world crossing items off their “bucket list.”

From then on the movie plays out like a road trip comedy, but without a destination there is simply an exploration of the two men and their growing friendship, renewed sense of vigor for life despite facing imminent mortality, and unwillingness to deal with shattered family relationships.  Freeman, channeling his Shawshank Redemption character Ellis Redding, is somewhat of a spiritual mentor-slash-guidance counselor for Cole, who (betcha didn’t see this coming…) can buy anything he wants but feels more alone and empty than ever.  As they crisscross the globe going on a safari, visiting the pyramids, and indulging in the finer things in life, I kept on wishing there was more of a connection between the characters.  The two grown men are brand new best friends who know virtually nothing about each other–kind of like a geriatric version of High School Musical, minus the singing and dancing.

Skydiving when youre 70?  Better late than never...

Skydiving when you're 70? Better late than never...

Without missing the forest for the trees, though, there is a lot to like about Reiner’s film.  While many Hollywood movies celebrate the fleeting glory of self-indulgence and living for the moment, consequences-be-darned, it’s refreshing to see a movie whose central characters look back on life and come to the conclusion that they would have been better off living for the good of others.  I also appreciate that a central part of Chambers’ life and family relationships is his faith in Jesus Christ, and he is even seen leading his family in a very sincere dinner prayer near the end of the movie.  And while I’m on somewhat of a high moral soapbox here, let me also praise Reiner for extolling the virtues of a monogamous marital relationship.  While Chambers and his wife do not have the perfect marriage, they are committed to each other and to their family, and Chambers even says that he has never been with another woman in his life (in many ways the opposite of Reiner’s earlier protagonist Harry Burns).

Aside from a few problems with the script, The Bucket List is an entertaining but often sad look at what it means to have a life well lived, and tugs at the very heartstrings so masterfully plucked by masters of the genre like Frank Capra.  In fact, I daresay that Capra himself would probably be proud of Reiner’s film.

Last 5 posts by Simon R.

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