A couple of geezers go on a last fling before dying.
Sounds depressing, I know, until you figure on Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as the geezers.
"The Bucket List" (2007) is the kind of film that drives critics nuts. It's sentimental, simplistic, and almost shamefully manipulative, yet I found it absolutely charming from beginning to end. Chalk that up to my own sentimentality and, more important, to the charismatic pairing of the movie's two stars. Without them, we'd have a travelogue.
Sir Thomas Beecham, the late, great conductor, called such things lollipops: Light, sweet, little pieces of entertainment he used to like to include in his symphonic programs along with more serious fare. "The Bucket List" is like that. While it has a serious message, it's mostly light and sweet and goes down like a lollipop. It's not really the kind of film that benefits all that much from high-definition Blu-ray reproduction, but every little bit helps, and the various location shots come off nicely.
The director of "The Bucket List," Rob Reiner, does such things. He gave us "Spinal Tap," "Stand By Me," "The Princess Bride," "When Harry Met Sally," and other such confections. And Nicholson and Freeman are capable of anything. Besides, each actor gets his turn narrating. How can you beat that?
Nicholson plays billionaire Edward Cole: angry, grouchy, lonely, and friendless. Four times divorced, Cole says he was always married to his money. Freeman plays his opposite, garage mechanic Carter Chambers: pleasant, friendly, knowledgeable about practically everything without ever having gone anywhere, and a contented family man with a loving wife, two grown sons, and one grown daughter, all of them successful.
The two men have nothing in common, except a hospital room and terminal cancer.
Cole has said time and again that he "runs hospitals. Two to a room, no exceptions." When doctors hospitalize him, diagnosing him with cancer, his assistant, Thomas (terrifically played in deadpan style by Sean Hayes), tells him it would be a PR disaster if Cole were have a private room to himself. Chambers is Cole's roommate, and during the men's treatment, they become friends.
After several months, doctors tell both fellows they have from six months to a year to live, and it's here that they develop the "bucket list." It's a roster of all the things they want to do before they kick the bucket. For Chambers, at first the list is just a fantasy, something to pass the time, until he realizes that Cole is in earnest about it and has all the money in the world to make it come true.
Among their listed items to do: Help a complete stranger for the good, see something majestic, visit the Himalayas, drive a Shelby 350, skydive, kiss the most beautiful girl in the world, get a tattoo, visit Stonehenge, see Rome and the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal, etc. They decide to go out in style, and like the two characters in E.M. Forster's short story "Mr. Andrews," they discover that the greatest joy in life is the joy you bring to others.
I told you it was sentimental. It's almost hopelessly sentimental. If you are the kind of viewer who resents films that attempt to make you tear up, leave this one alone. It will only annoy you, and you'll go away convinced it is mawkish and maudlin and gushy to the extreme. Yet, if you give it its due, let it work on its own terms, don't fight it, and just enjoy the camaraderie of the two characters, you might just enjoy it.
"The Bucket List" is short on plot, which is simply a series of travels the men take, and weak on characterization, as what you see is pretty much what you get. Sure, Nicholson plays a caricature of himself, and Freeman plays his usual buddy role. But we wouldn't want it any other way. What the movie's got is heart. And it isn't afraid to wear it on its sleeve.
"Do you hate me?" asks Cole.
"Not yet," responds Chambers.
And so it began.
In its standard-definition form the video quality of this 1.85:1-ratio movie was already pretty good, and this Blu-ray, 1080p, VC-1, BD25 version, as expected, shows improvement, if marginal. The high-def picture is smoothly delineated, if somewhat soft, with strong, rich colors, deep black levels, and just a trace of natural film grain to give texture to the picture. Putting the SD version in one player and the BD in another and then switching back and forth between selected paused images, particularly facial close-ups, revealed the standard-def picture (even up-scaled) looking a bit washed out and smeared by comparison, with details just a smidgeon more blurred and contrasts a little less prominent. Still, the differences, while noticeable, did not seem as great to me as other such comparisons I've made.
The only soundtrack Warners make available on this Blu-ray disc is Dolby Digital 5.1. Since about 99% of the movie's audio is dialogue, anyway, I suppose they figured it didn't make any difference. Either that or WB couldn't find room for a lossless track. I don't know. In any case, the DD 5.1 renders the midrange cleanly, and when background music makes an occasional appearance, the audio handles it appropriately, with very little surround information except for a faint musical ambience reinforcement. In all, the audio is quiet, gentle, and pleasant, like the movie.
Carried over from the standard-definition disc is a five-minute featurette, "Writing a Bucket List," with screenwriter Justin Zackham, and an equally brief music video, "Say," with John Mayer.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition are several additional items. The first is a Trivia Track with pop-up notes appearing abundantly throughout the movie. The second item has director Rob Reiner interviewing the two stars of the film separately, with twenty-one minutes devoted to Nicholson and another sixteen minutes to Freeman. Incidentally, if you wonder why Nicholson looks so heavy in the film, it is apparently because he really was in the hospital just before shooting began, and he had picked up weight. In the interview, the actor looks more like his normal self. Finally, there is a five-minute behind-the-scenes segment called "The Making of Say," the John Mayer music video.
The extras conclude with twenty-three scene selections but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
This third time through the film (once in a theater, once in standard def, and now in high definition), I watched it with the Wife-O-Meter, who had not seen it. I was a little hesitant to watch it with her because she's quite the pragmatist and usually doesn't care for overly sentimental films. When the movie ended, she said, "That was cute," and I could see she was a little choked up. But the next day was what really convinced me she liked it when she said she had told friends at work about it, and they, too, said they liked it. She never discusses a film with people unless she really likes the film.
"There was a survey once," says Chambers. "A thousand people were asked if they could know in advance, would they want to know the exact day of their death. Ninety-six percent of them said no."
"The Bucket List" is not really about dying. It's about living life to its fullest with the people you love the most. It's about the joy we find in others and the joy we bring to others. With Nicholson and Freeman in full command of the subject matter, it's a film that can bring joy to anyone with an open mind and an open heart.