“It’s difficult to measure the sum of a person’s life.” And yet, you know, as Morgan Freeman utters these words, the film that follows means to measure exactly that. His voiceover continues, pressing the point, that while “some people” think one way and “some people” think another, “Me, I believe you can measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you.”
You’ve heard this opening monologue before — or one so like it you recognize The Bucket List as the sort of movie you can watch in your sleep. There will be imminent death, crucial life lessons, and lots of clichés that pass as measurements. Freeman plays Carter, a hardworking, intellectually curious car mechanic who drops his cigarette as soon as he gets a phone call from his wife concerning his prognosis. For his cancer, he will undergo surgery, chemo, and radiation. More importantly, for Rob Reiner’s film, he will endure a tiresome roommate, Edwin Cole (Jack Nicholson), a self-absorbed millionaire who must learn his own measure, thanks to Carter.
Cole is introduced in his element, which is to say, a courtroom, where he has his lawyer make the bullying proposal that his privatization of a public hospital is not just a reasonable or best-of-bad-options idea, but the only possible idea. As Cole sips his Kopi Luwak, “the rarest beverage in the world,” the point is made that he lacks curiosity comparable to his buddy-to-be Carter, for he has never bothered to find out its source. Cole’s lawyer simpers, the hospital attorneys fret, and Cole turns bellicose, just before he coughs into his hankie and finds himself staring at a fistful of blood.
Cole’s overwrought Camille-y moment sends him straight to Carter’s hospital room, where the discover that they have precious little in common aside from their illness, which, of course, is all they need. Though Carter is visited by son Roger (Alfonso Freeman) and wife Virginia (Beverly Todd), and Cole has only his manservant Thomas (Sean Hayes), he soon discovers that he’s spent too many years working too many hours in his shop, to put his three kids through college (when Virginia told him “the news” about her first pregnancy, he says sadly, he had to give up city college: “Young, black, baby on the way,” he explains). As much as Carter loves his wife, he’s also grown used to her (after 40 years, he says, “We’d lost something along the way”). And besides, he’s increasingly attracted to his new roommate, especially as he hears him vomiting and moaning late at night.
By the time both men are apprised of their conveniently similar fates (“six months, maybe a year”), they’ve bonded sincerely. When Cole suggests they embark on an adventure, accomplishing the things they most want to do before they “kick the bucket,” Carter pauses for about two seconds, then agrees to leave behind his wife and family for a rich boy’s fantasy. With all kinds of money to spend, Cole and his new best and only friend trot around the globe in his private jet, Thomas in tow and making minute-by-minute arrangements. The focus on their familiar bonding plot doesn’t quite obscure the distastefully expensive and isolationist tourism they act out: the more they travel, it seems, the less they interact with anyone beyond themselves.
Their self-assigned accomplishments range from driving fast cars to skydiving, from visiting Africa and the Pyramids (when Carter extols the romance of Taj Mahal, constructed by “20,000 volunteers,” it’s left to Cole to suggest what’s wrong with that story: “Don’t know if I buy the whole 20,000 volunteers thing”). These many conventional fantasies that get them feeling proud of themselves (“This is livin’!”). In between activities, they chat about what makes life meaningful. Carter poses two questions he claims are asked of Egyptians entering heaven: “Have you found joy in your life?” and “Has your life brought joy to others?” Cole grumbles and resists the very premise of such measures, refers to his four wives as the first and the “sequels.” It’s not hard to see why Virginia had a bad feeling about him, but the movie suggests that he’s actually more fun than she is, which leaves Virginia to wait for her husband’s return, powerless and silenced, except when she calls Cole’s cell phone to beg him to return her dying husband to his family.
Her upset inspires Cole to do a right thing, sort of, though the route is roundabout, involving a rather tedious measure of manhood and loyalty. As they cross off items on the bucket list, the men understand each other, their women watch them understand each other, and the rest of us wait for it to be over.