In a broad sense, Rob Reiner's tear-jerking new serio-comedy The Bucket List is pure hackery, cynically trotting out every cliché of the not-quite-prestige-level crowd-pleaser, right down to the Morgan Freeman narration. Reiner even goes one further and puts Freeman himself in the movie, as a trivia-obsessed auto mechanic dying of cancer in the same ward as obscenely rich old bastard Jack Nicholson. After some early squabbles, the two come to enjoy each other's company, and Nicholson soon decides to help Freeman do everything he always wanted to do before he kicked the bucket. The Bucket List is a buddy picture, a "setting things right" story, and a globe-hopping adventure all in one, designed to make the audience feel better about saying goodbye to loved ones. Or at least to make them feel better about saying goodbye to two wisecracking movie characters with enough money to use the wonders of the world as their personal amusement park.
But from a filmmaking standpoint, The Bucket List is a smooth ride, with Reiner in his tasteful Stand By Me/The American President mode, keeping the pacing taut and the schmaltz as unobtrusive as he can afford to. The movie maybe spends too much time at the hospital in the early going (which mostly just gives Nicholson a chance to do a lot of grunting, groaning, and rasping) and too many later scenes feature the two stars standing or sitting in front of a bluescreen, so their exotic adventures can be computer-enhanced. Still, given how awful Reiner's films have been for the past decade, The Bucket List is a welcome return to form, largely avoiding the tin-eared dialogue and broad gestures that made movies like The Story Of Us so unbearable.
Let's face it: with a movie like this, audiences should already know what to expect. Both characters are bound to learn a few important life lessons on their way to the grave, and they'll be grumbly and vulgar in calculatingly endearing ways. The trick for any filmmaker with an assignment like The Bucket List is to punch through those presets as painlessly as possible, which for the most part, Reiner does. There are certainly worse ways to spend the holiday season than in the company of two charming old actors, being reminded that human companionship makes life worth living, even as it makes dying a little tougher.