By Ray Pride
Rob Reiner: miracle worker.
With “The Bucket List,” Reiner does something almost unthinkable: he makes Jack Nicholson painful to watch. Even when Nicholson overacts in tsunamis and torrents and waterfalls of overacting, he’s got charm to burn. There’s grace in his performances in the 1970s, such as “The Last Detail” and “Chinatown,” but even when Nicholson got to the point of “The Witches of Eastwick,” horribly mismeasured in every way, Jack was there. “Wolf”? Nonsensical with clanging metaphors: Jack was there. “Batman”: Jack’s such a Joker. Jack might be big, but bad? Reiner does the inconceivable with his bizarre, unfunny, often dreadful latest production: he coaxes a world-class shitty performance from the 70-year-old Hollywood icon amid mirthless, pallid surroundings.
The circumstances of death are funny. Human frailty and failing are funny. “The Bucket List” is not. There’s a reason the phrase “gallows humor” has persisted: a good laugh as you’re falling down the stairs toward breaking your neck is the healthiest thing for you. And for a thrilling account of sudden illness and potential death as something life-affirming, there’s also Julian Schnabel’s wonderful “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” But this original script by Justin Zackham for “Bucket” is the kind of treacle-ridden badness that swells the arteries, but one would hope not the bank accounts of all involved.
Nicholson plays Edward Cole, a movie-type billionaire, one whose healthcare concerns are champion cost-cutters, who meets another sufferer, car mechanic Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman, on day leave from God roles) in a cancer ward, and offers to finance a “bucket list,” all the potential thrills they’d left behind as they lived their lives. (Generic name, meet generic name. Introduction of schematic conflict. Generic joke about growing old. Cliché about dying! Smile through gritted teeth.) Skydiving, visiting the Great Pyramids, Hong Kong, the Taj Mahal, bonding between bouts of puking from chemo. The computer-generated backdrops—surely this production didn’t go much beyond the Culver City limits—are often amusing, in a Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “Road to Inertia” kind of way, but as the old saying goes, it’s always a bad sign when you leave a movie humming the scenery or wondering how many of the scenes were constructed as Kodak Theatre moments.
James L. Brooks-style sentiment seems what’s intended during the revelations of child neglect and emotional failures, but despite several wonderful films on Reiner’s resume, including “Spinal Tap,” “Stand by Me,” “Misery” and “When Harry Met Sally,” he’s also helmed “Ghosts of Mississippi,” “The Story of Us,” “Alex and Emma,” took over the botched filming of “Rumor Has It” (as a favor to his former business partner who now heads Warner and who green-lit this delight) and in 1994, wrought “North,” which inspired Roger Ebert’s justly famous zero-star pan: “I have no idea why Rob Reiner, or anyone else, wanted to make this story into a movie… “North” is one of the most unpleasant, contrived, artificial, cloying experiences I’ve had at the movies. To call it manipulative would be inaccurate; it has an ambition to manipulate, but fails… I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.” I quote Ebert at length in order to reflect: Hmmm. “The Bucket List” isn’t that bad. But no. Curdled milk does not improve the status of rotted lettuce, so the bottomless badness of “North” should not reflect on the mere waste in most of “The Bucket List.” I’m not sure after watching the film what Reiner really thinks about euthanasia, but this film could have been smothered at a much earlier stage with no one the wiser.
Reiner himself says the attempt to juggle a film career with his political activism damaged his work, and after several setbacks and defeats as an activist, he intends to make more movies, concentrating on the few films left to him as a man in his 60s. That’s his “bucket list.” Here’s one movie to see before you die: Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru.” It will sear you, it will make you a greater person. How Kurosawa conveys the feelings of a man coming to grips with terminal illness is how an artist, a true artist, makes life larger and better and greater. “The Bucket List”? I hated hated hated… well, I only just hated it.
“The Bucket List” kicks Friday.