One of the first to leave us in 2017. Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play a pair of old men with cancer who go in search of adventure. The results are deceitful and nauseating
The Bucket List
The Bucket List is, as you might imagine, a film about a list. A list of all the good things in life: places to be visited, people worth cherishing, values to which to cleave.
It is, however, a film so dire, so soulless, so sappy and at the same time so bullyingly manipulative, that it leaves you wishing to compile another list: one that details the many and intricate ways in which you might do harm to everyone involved in the making of this quite astoundingly horrendous drek.
Rob Reiner, a man whose filmography let us not forget includes This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and When Harry Met Sally (1989), directs this black/white, poor/ rich version of The Odd Couple. Jack Nicholson plays Edward Cole, the billionaire head of a health-care company whose huge profits have come at the expense of any respect for its patients whom it squeezes into cheap, drab-looking rooms. He’s a brute and a gleeful, cocksure one at that.
Then, suddenly felled by cancer, he is forced for the sake of PR to enter one of his own hospitals, sharing his room with Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman), an academic high-flyer who gave up his studies and became a mechanic in order to support his pregnant girlfriend (Beverly Todd).
This is obviously not the most sophisticated dramatic set up that’s ever been storyboarded, but it’s not entirely without potential. Health-care reform in America is on the agenda – both politically and, thanks to Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko, on screen too.
And it’s possible to imagine a smart, fractious update of The Defiant Ones in which, instead of Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier’s shackled convicts, Nicholson and Freeman try to get along together in order to face down cancer.
Nothing of the sort happens here. Cole gobbles up gourmet meals prepared for him by his personal assistant. Then the chemotherapy kicks in, he loses his appetite, and decides to break out of hospital with Chamber so that they can spend their final few months ticking off the ‘To Do’ list that the latter has compiled: skydiving, getting tattoos, visiting the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids.
Overlooking the strong possibility that a five-year-old on Jim’ll Fix It would have chosen more interesting adventures than the two men, it’s hard to share in their exhilaration when the backdrops to their settings look so fake: the pyramids resemble the roof deck of a car park in Tamworth.
On they stagger, dispensing with one guffy banality after another (“We live. We die. The wheels on the bus go around and around”; “I believe that you measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you”), to the point that you wish the lions they encounter on their safari (a trip whose soundtrack is ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’!) would gobble them up.
Few Hollywood movies make cancer their central subject, and The Bucket List is no different. Nicholson and Freeman are too old and inflexible now to be able to move beyond mannerism.
The former wheezes around, a little less madcap than usual, hoping that his shaven, scar-tracked head will lead us to appreciate the bold role he has chosen to take on. It doesn’t, it just makes him look like a cross between Al Gore and Gary Glitter.
Meanwhile, Freeman, the stiffest and most banal screen-sage ever to have existed, adopts his usual rabbinical baritone. He never once evokes any complexity or earthiness. A catheter he’s wearing bursts during a restaurant meal; it’s meant to be a viscerally upsetting moment, but he looks, and we feel, no more embarrassed or upset than if he’d spilled a cranberry cocktail over himself.
The Bucket List would have us congratulate it for tackling such a doleful topic. But it lies and lies. It tells us that a poor African-American, by virtue of being good, can expect in his old age to get treated to the rewards his graft and decency deserve.
It seems to think that rich people, if brought into contact with poor folk, will change their selfish ways. It wants us to believe that cancer is an Aladdin’s lamp, a social unifier, a catalyst for enlightenment.
In fact, cancer is not the focus of this film, merely a narrative device. Cancer is – damnable, deceitful lie – an opportunity for personal redemption. That most hackneyed of Hollywood obsessions! How timid and mindless it looks when set against The Savages, Tamara Jenkins’s recent drama about dementia that showed in clear-eyed and at times horribly graphic form the unfairness, abjection and ugliness of old age.
On and on Reiner’s film trundles. Scriptwriter Justin Zackham’s moralisms suppurate from every scene. “What DO you believe?” Freeman keeps asking.
There are tears, and laughter, and family reconciliations. Things pan out sadly, but not too sadly, and death unites us, and black and white people will always get along if only they would talk to each other and respect each other’s shared humanity.
The Bucket List is about the importance of living life as if each moment might be your last. Anyone who fears there may be some truth in that sentiment would do well to stay as far away as possible from this nauseating, mendacious film.
There are so few feature-length documentaries about photography that Barbara Leibovotz’s portrait of her sister, Annie Liebovitz: Through A Lens, is very welcome. It gives audiences the chance to look back at the work of one of the most feted as well as remunerated photographers working today.
That picture of a naked John Lennon curled up beside Yoko Ono; of Whoopi Goldberg in a bath of milk; of a naked and pregnant Demi Moore: they’re all hers.
She may like snapping naked celebrities, but the woman famous for her expensive Vanity Fair spreads doesn’t reveal very much of herself in this film.
There is rare footage of her hanging out with various rock stars during the 1970s, the decade when she made her name at Rolling Stone magazine, and a stellar cast of sitters – Hillary Clinton, Mick Jagger, Anna Wintour – but the overall tone is so reverential it borders on sycophancy.
The only voice of dissent is Vicki Goldberg, who claims her photos are “one-liners rather than stories”. A comparison of her gaudy and melodramatic portrait of Patti Smith with that taken by Robert Mapplethorpe and used on the cover of the Horses album shows what an inferior talent she is, an undeserving beneficiary of the modern fixation on celebrities that she herself has done so much to promote.