The Bucket List

DVD review The director of the razor-sharp Spinal Tap, this time goes for sugary sweet and soft-focus. Against all the odds, it works, says Gemma Champ.

Film still from 'The Bucket List' (2007), featuring Jack Nicholson & Morgan Freeman.  Warner Bros / Rex Features

REF al12AU-dvdBUCKETLISTmain 12/08/08
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Two old men with radically different lives, both terminally ill, meet in a hospital, decide to complete a list of things to do before they die, travel the world, and discover that what means the most to them is waiting for them back at home. Clearly originality was not the foremost concern of the screenwriter Justin Zackham and the director Rob Reiner when they pitched this idea to the money guys at Warner Bros. "It's Easy Rider meets My Name Is Earl. We're thinking Jack Nicholson in the role of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in the role of wise, hopeful voiceover." Well, with that cast, you can't lose, can you?

Sugary sentiment and soft-focus camerawork aside, this is not such a turkey as you might fear. Both Nicholson and Freeman turn in sterling performances, the former as Edward Cole, a hardened, heartless billionaire who made his money cutting costs and standards in hospitals, the latter as Carter Chambers, a humble mechanic who gave up his dream of being an academic to support his family. When they find themselves sharing a room, thanks to Cole's own ruthless hospital-management principles - "two to a room, no exceptions" - they overcome scepticism, cynicism, grumpiness and witnessing one another's bodily functions during the misery of chemotherapy, to become card partners and firm friends. Following the revelation that each has six months to a year to live, Cole persuades Chambers to turn his "bucket list" - a list of things to achieve before death - from a few vague but earnest promises ("Help a complete stranger"; "Laugh until I cry") into a round-the-world blast of a road trip, leaving behind his distraught wife of 45 years.

After a couple of US-based adventures, such as racing one another around a circuit, smashing up their shiny new Mustangs (ironically, given his recent crash in Memphis, Freeman's character emerges without a scratch), they jump on board Cole's luxurious private jet and head for the rest of the world: the south of France, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, a Tanzanian safari, the Great Wall of China... After all, what better legacy to the world than a stonking great carbon footprint?

And legacy is what this film is really, soppily, about. Chambers' defiant decision to take some "me-time", after decades of devotion to his family, and Coles' hedonistic, self-obsessed lifestyle, in which he routinely abuses his only real companion, his assistant Thomas (an excellent, understated Sean Hayes), seem to be all about fun, freedom and selfishness, but while both men are blind when it comes to their own true feelings, each tries to persuade the other to think about their most important legacy: their families.

Bearing all the hallmarks of a classic Hollywood morality tale, characterised by warm music, golden lighting and clunky preaching, The Bucket List defies logic by remaining a rather sweet little movie, whether because of the comedy timing of the ever-sardonic Nicholson, the twinkling gravitas of Freeman or the script that again and again pushes the saccharine as far as you can bear before puncturing it with a comic one-liner or visual gag. This is no Frank Capra tearjerker, but, against all the odds, it works.