The Bucket List, 12A

Smile for the camera, and say cheesy: Jack and Morgan may be on autopilot, but Julie really knows how to fly
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The Independent Culture

Magazines are always filling their pages with morbid "Things To Do/Places To See/Movies To See Before You Die" lists, but it's assumed that the "dying" part is rhetorical. Not for Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in Rob Reiner's latest film, The Bucket List. Nicholson plays a cocksure, Jack Nicholsonish playboy who's amassed a fortune by running hospitals as cheaply as he can. Apparently, the way to make a killing in healthcare is to abide by the slogan: "Two patients to a room! No exceptions!". But this policy comes back to haunt him when he's struck down by a brain tumour himself and, for PR reasons, he has to share a room with Freeman, a car mechanic who always wanted to be a history professor. Freeman is seen smoking the first time we see him, and so, sure enough, he learns that he has cancer in that very same scene.

Luckily, both men have "movie cancer", that rare strain of the disease which doesn't have any symptoms. Less luckily, they're both told that they have no more than a year to live, which prompts Freeman to write a "bucket list" of things he'd like to do before he kicks the bucket. "Cutesy," grunts Nicholson. But he's grown fond of his room-mate, so he adds a few Things To Do of his own, and persuades Freeman that they should go through the bucket list together, with Nicholson picking up the tab.

With a premise like that, it's amazing how bland their goals are. Freeman goes for the vaguely spiritual likes of, "witness something majestic", and, "help a stranger" – which leads you to ask why he hasn't done so already – while Nicholson roughs out a sort of overgrown stag trip, with sky-diving and getting a tattoo as his priorities. Neither man hits on a single idiosyncratic or complicated ambition, which means that every time Nicholson crosses a line off the crumpled sheet of legal notepad paper, viewers will recall the much funnier and more distinctive TV comedy My Name is Earl.

It's more of an itinerary than a Bucket List. By making use of Nicholson's private jet and his right-hand man, Sean Hayes, the new friends fly around the world, ticking off the pyramids, the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China – all of which serve as picturesque backdrops for the odd couple's chats, but none of which affects them in any way. When you've got a billion dollars at your disposal, and a Jeeves to take care of your travel arrangements, nothing untoward is going to happen to you, which doesn't make for a very exciting film. The poster might claim that The Bucket List is about finding joy, but it's actually about finding a very wealthy buddy and ignoring your carbon footprint.

Instead of having a plot, the film relies on our keenness to see the charismatic leading men play their signature roles for the umpteenth time. Nicholson is on firecracker form as his usual devil-may-care rake, and Freeman is his patented avuncular sage, dispensing bartender platitudes, quoting his "pastor", and doling out the same folksy voice-over as he has in most of his films since The Shawshank Redemption. The two personae spark off each other effectively, but you could say that the film comes down to a battle for dominance between them. Is the story going to side with Nicholson, the bad influence? Or is it going to take its cues from Freeman's cosy conservatism? Should it be a wild ride or an easy stroll? A Scotch or an Ovaltine? Alas, Reiner follows Freeman's path, and a comedy about living life to the full becomes a sentimental sermon about saying grace before dinner. It's not going to be on many people's "Films To See Before You Die" lists.