Death Myths: The Bucket List and The Savages

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Sidney Baldwin / Warner Bros.

Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in The Bucket List

Jack Nicholson's description of terminal illness: "You go home to some ceremonial procession into death, with everyone standing around watching you die while you try to comfort them. Is that what you want? To be smothered by pity and grief?"

The Bucket List knows what you'd want if you found out you were going to die soon: A NEW CAR! The prognosis may be alarming in this sentimental septuagenarian comedy, but at least the price is right.

Edward Cole (Nicholson) is a mean old plutocrat, four times divorced, estranged from his daughter, laying down ruthless rules for the hospitals he owns. Far down the money scale, but superior in all others ways, is Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman), a polymath mechanic, faithful to his wife of 45 years, settled into a lifelong routine of diminished expectations. The only blemish on Carter's record: He smokes. In any movie directed by antitobacco activist Rob Reiner, a cigarette has to be a leading indicator of death.

Through the laborious arranging of plot furniture in Justin Zackham's script — Edward has publicly proclaimed that every sick room in his hospitals must be filled with two patients — these disparate souls end up side by side, each one informed he has only a few months to live. It's as if Edward and Carter had been wheeled in to a UCLA screenwriting class. Here, students, is the movie ploy called "meeting cute" in its purest, weirdest form. What if George Bailey and Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life were forced to endure each other's company for an extended time under extreme circumstances? They might learn things from each other. Why, we all might learn something.

In The Bucket List we learn that, for a lower-middle-class fellow like Carter, there's no death sentence that can't be ameliorated by running into a wealthy guy ready to spend millions of dollars on a Last Holiday. (The 1950 Alec Guinness film of that title, remade in 2006 with Queen Latifah, is one of many precursors to this fantasyland scenario.) The specific lesson to be taken from this doesn't have much practical application, unless the dying start demanding a double room with a billionaire when they check in for their inoperable cancer surgery. But this movie exists wholly in the realm of metaphor, whose messages stick out like placards: Find joy through pain. Reunite with estranged loved ones. Keep hope alive.

Carter has hope because Edward — however deep the Scrooge impulses that have earned him his fortune — is quickly revealed as the sort of super-rich subspecies Hollywood loves: the curmudgeon with a heart of gold. Nicholson played this character in As Good As It Gets; Andy Griffith had a shot at it this year in Waitress. Both are Old Testament deity types who want to spend their largesse on one lavish good deed, instead of, say, giving all the people in their employ a $2-an-hour pay raise. But, no, that would merely promote the general welfare; movies are about Santa Clauses choosing one person to give all the toys to — some poor but noble soul who's rarely caught a break.

So each member of this two-man Over-the-Hill gang makes a list of things to do before kicking the bucket. Edward wants a few kicks: skydiving, tattoo, drag-racing. Carter has a loftier agenda: "Laugh until I cry." (That one kicks in around minute 86.) "Help a complete stranger." (Guess who?) "Witness something truly majestic." (Reiner clearly wants audiences leaving his movie to believe that's what they've just done.) They go to France for a great meal, Africa for a safari, Egypt for the Pyramids, India for the Taj Mahal, Nepal to scale Mount Everest. Carter not only gets to drive that new car — a Mustang Shelby, prominently placed for maximum commercial impact — he gets to smash it up on a racetrack. If the Make-a-Wish Foundation had an outreach program for adolescent alterkockers, this would be the dream list.

From Dark Victory to Patch Adams, Hollywood never found a cancer ward it couldn't spiff up, a death sentence that didn't have emotional uplift. In another new movie, The Savages, the issue ostensibly addressed is that of middle-aged siblings saddled with a cranky dad suffering from Alzheimer's ("Al What's-his-name's Disease," as a character says in the Tom Stoppard play Rock 'n' Roll). But that ordeal turns out to be the work of but a month, not decades — just long enough for the brother and sister to learn the cleansing importance of family solidarity. The notion that terminal illness is mainly an opportunity for elevating lessons on the meaning of life, and not a debilitating slog for all concerned, is proof that Hollywood is still in the unreality business.

The Savages, The Bucket List: these are fairy tales for the dying and their survivors. The Reiner movie gets some honest laughs when physical agony makes its heroes behave less than heroically — "Somewhere," Edward mutters during one lightning blast of pain, "some lucky guy's havin' a heart attack" — but its prescription is essentially whimsical: a Percocet disguised as a miracle cure to defeat the fear of death.

The film also fits into the recent, dominant trend of buddy movies. Each of the dying men here has to find his destiny not on his own, not with his family or through fulfilling work, but with another guy on a toot. The men in Sideways needed to cut loose before one of them got married; the high school kids in Superbad had to get laid before graduation. In this film, the deadline is death, but the M.O. is the same: fun, fun, fun till the Reaper takes your Mustang away.

With four Best Actor Academy Awards between them, the two stars are the main reason for sticking around. Freeman, perhaps the movies' only current embodiment of gentle strength and emotional maturity, may be sick of playing Nature's Nobleman, but it doesn't show here. As Carter gives life lessons to Edward, Freeman gives tips in underacting to Nicholson. But the course doesn't take. Jack — editorializing with every inflection, his eyebrows now permanently arched, his face bloated so that he now resembles the eternal supporting player Elisha Cook Jr. — doesn't bother to occupy a role anymore. Instead, he plays Jack Nicholson, the breezy celebrity who sits up front at the Oscars or the Lakers. He preened all the way through The Departed; he seemed to be doing a silent running commentary on his character in About Schmidt. Maybe not since The Pledge has he hunkered down and acted.

But never mind all that. We probably shouldn't begrudge the spectacle of movie stars reusing the strategies that first endeared them to us. Nor is it a crime to be hooked by the death struggle and cheerful defiance that this bad, but honorably bad, film proposes. Misting over while watching a male weepie is like laughing at fart jokes — an atavistic, involuntary reaction. Absolutely human. Just try not to let your friends know.

This is the chancy sort of project that gets made because some financier thinks it will win awards, thus bringing in the customers and justifying its costs. My prognosis: the movie won't survive that long. But there's a chance it will be discovered on DVD by its natural audience: the old folks who don't go to movie theaters but could use a sweet fable to take them into the long night at home. That's the one wish that might be granted on The Bucket List's own bucket list.