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Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
SIGHTSEERS: Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson tour the world's favorite destinations in 'The Bucket List.'

Kick It

Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman pursue some near-death photo ops in 'The Bucket List'

By Richard von Busack

THE TERMINAL-DISEASE film is in a constant process of reinvention: each new season's cancer movie must be slightly more honest about the kinds of sights and smells we can expect on the way out. The Bucket List refers to the explosive diarrhea and vomiting some chemo patients experience. Otherwise, the film dispenses the same end-of-the-trail bilge. Terminally ill garage mechanic Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) stands witness for a spiritual view of life's end. Jack Nicholson's outwardly jovial but inwardly unhappy billionaire Edward Cole protests that creature comforts are the best way to face one's mortality. Guess which point of view wins the day? Hint: Freeman, who has been the voice of God for longer than Billy Graham, claims that 95 percent of the world's people believe in the Almighty. The title comes from "things to do before you kick the bucket," though it's mostly an excuse to frame the bromance of these two actors. The filmmakers try to get this movie's heart started with digital digitalis; green-screened visits to famed tourist monuments and a sequence of pestering the animals at the Serengeti. The persistent Carter figures out that the main trauma in the billionaire's life is his unraveled family; behind it all lies a mistake Cole made because he loved his daughter too much. Nicholson huffs the would-be sardonic lines, such as telling his devoted cat's-paw (Sean Hayes), "Nobody cares what you think," in tones that would seem to be a pre-emptory strike on critics.

If you've known people who gave cancer a real hard fight, The Bucket List can seem unbearably corrupt and manipulative. Frank Capra III was one of the producers, and the name says it all: third-generation schmaltz, as interpreted by a second-generation director, Rob Reiner. Scriptwriter Justin "I wrote this in two weeks and had the bad form to boast about it" Zackham sets up a contrast between the good honest flavor of a poor man's life and the loneliness of the unhappiest billionaire. The early shot of Chambers putting out his cigs in a Chock Full O' Nuts can represents his own kind of working-class sympathy; it's meant to oppose Nicholson's fancy-shmancy Kopi Luwak coffee, which turns out to be fermented in the droppings of Indonesian civets. And so what—what does it taste like? There's an unsavory tang to a lot of life's more profound pleasures, like the feline musk in a rich perfume. And a script with this much cat shit in it shouldn't point the finger.

I love directors who tried to memorialize the fleeting sweetness of life: an elderly person in a Mike Leigh or Ozu film looking outward and inward at the same time. Or, on a more basic level, Buster Keaton's or James Bond's expressionless expression upon surviving a certain-death experience. The Bucket List's hokeyness appears all the more infuriating because of the capital matters the film treats with its Formica-smooth technique. The last scene explodes all the pretenses: the quiet dignity of a little life is celebrated on the crest of the Himalayas with the sun gilding across the horizon. It's a scene, as David Thomson said of the career of Madonna, that is an ad for advertising.

Movie Times THE BUCKET LIST (PG-13; 97 min.), directed by Rob Reiner, written by Justin Zackman, photographed by John Schwartzman and starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, opens Jan. 11 at selected theaters.

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