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Friday, Jan. 25, 2008

Near-Death Experience

Nicholson and Morgan kick the bucket

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Now that Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon are dead, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman have stepped into their grumpy old shoes. In the awkwardly titled The Bucket List, Nicholson and Freeman play Cole and Chambers, an odd couple on borrowed time. Sharing a hospital room and given less than a year to live, the two men decide to work their way down a to-do list before they kick the bucket—oh, things like sky diving, getting tattooed, a world tour with stops on the Riviera and Hong Kong, an African safari and an afternoon at the great pyramids of Egypt.

Cole picks up the tab, by the way. He can afford to. The friendless self-made millionaire figures he might as well spend some of his money before succumbing to the Reaper. At first, Cole doesn’t like Chambers at all, but his grouchy cynicism softens from the humanity and common touch of his hospital roommate. As a smart man normally surrounded by dullards, Cole probably recognizes the intelligence of his partner in chemotherapy. Chambers wanted to be a history professor. Being black and broke, he settled for auto mechanic.

While the critics have generally hated The Bucket List, the public has warmly embraced it. Little wonder. Regular moviegoers respond well to buddies on the road, especially when the journey leads them to ponder the meaning of it all. Movie critics on the other hand tend to be emotionally obtuse, and The Bucket List is a picture of sentiment that— thanks to strong performances— seldom slips into sentimentality. The bigheartedness of Freeman’s performance grates on the shriveled sensibilities of many critics.

Granted, The Bucket List has many problems. For starters, the trailer sets it up as a comedy, but the humor is doled out in sparse, droll asides from the protagonists. Wobbly and thin, the plot serves as a weak excuse for the reflections of two very different men walking under the shadow of death.

The contrast between Chambers and Cole is neatly drawn in terms of emotional versus material success, faith versus faithlessness, generosity of spirit versus self-interest. Chambers is given a chance to cut loose a little on their world tour and Cole the opportunity to wax philosophical. The Bucket List works as well as it does on a purely emotional level because of the unpretentious profundity with which Freeman invests his character and Nicholson’s evident glee as a sophisticate arching his brow against the gray corporate minions with drab minds that surround him. No wonder he embarked on his final journey with his hospital roommate. Chambers must have been the first fully formed mensch Cole encountered in many years.