Monday, January 14, 2008

Throw Cash At Your Cancer

In the vein of films such as Terms of Endearment (1983) and Stepmom (1998), Rob Reiner’s Jack Nicholson-Morgan Freeman vehicle, The Bucket List is an indulgent, decadent weepfest. The Kleenex-friendly plot is incredibly obvious, painfully simplistic, morally vacuous, and, in a way, exploitative. Despite all of these drawbacks, however, the film certainly lives up to the standards of the “I’m dying of (insert ailment)” genre. The film contains its fair share of bloody vomit, lonely moaning, cynical disease-centric comedy, and, of course, half-assed philosophizing about “what it all means” and what happens after death. Most central to the film’s plot, though, is a contagious strain of “Did I live my life to the fullest?”

The Bucket List proceeds in a fairly straightforward manner, introducing its odd couple of contrasting-yet-compatible old fogeys: Edward Cole (Nicholson) a wealthy hospital-privatizer and profiteer with self-interest to spare and Carter Chambers (Freeman), a would-be genius whose academic career was cut short early in life by an unexpected pregnancy, resulting in his 45 year stint as a blue-collar mechanic. The clashes between the two are visible from miles away. The pair happens to be placed in the same hospital room, in a hospital owned by Edward, causing Edward to hypocritically object to a policy of two-to-a-room he lobbied for in order to pinch pennies, and creating a certain uneasiness between them that is amplified by Carter’s disdain for Edward’s high-falutin’ coffee and arrogant attitude. Eventually, through the bonding process of watching each other vomit, seize, and get diagnosed as terminally ill (mixed in with some rummy and autobiographical anecdotes), the two become fast friends, deciding to use Edward’s infinite wealth to fulfill their final wishes, jotted down as The Bucket List, which involve driving a Shelby Mustang, climbing a mountain in the Himalayas, skydiving, and a whole slew of other such stereotypical wishes.

Throughout the globetrotting journey that ensues, Edward and Carter learn more and more about each other, having spats and bonding moments, while dealing with major family issues, namely Edward’s estrangement from his daughter and Carter’s dissolving marriage. The two have distinctly carved out niches, which balance each other well. Edwards spouts hedonistic, materialistic rhetoric while sipping rare beverages and living balls-to-the-wall, while Carter preaches the virtues of sacrifice, faith, and family. Hardee-har-har, I reckon we got ourselves a standard ideological dichotomy. The two poles that the men wave their flags at are barely budged from in the film and it seems as if Reiner and scriptwriter Justin Zackham swing toward Carter’s wholesome, optimistic, humble philosophy, insinuating that Edward has a change of heart and improves himself as a result of Carter’s wise example. This approach is terribly naïve and reflects a rigidity of thought and a lack of gray area that makes The Bucket List, like many cancer movies, simple and digestible, therefore, commercially viable. This is certainly a disappointing route for the film to take, as it makes the film basically redundant. There are no truly challenging aspects in The Bucket List, save for a half-hearted attempt by Edward to express why he is an atheist, and therefore the film merely floats along, awash with sentimentality and traditional optimism.

To be fair, I will admit that The Bucket List had me tearing up during a few moments. However, this is not so much to the film’s credit as it is to that of the subject matter: the death of a friend. The film doesn’t really handle the subject well, and sitting in a theater full of sobbing moviegoers, I felt that the real sadness came from a sort of reflection in the viewers that could be equally accomplished by someone bluntly asking, “What if your best friend died?” For me, this is not terribly impressive. I left the film disappointed, as I felt one of the most important factors of the plot was shamefully glossed over. The question I kept asking myself was, “What if Edward wasn’t infinitely rich?” The whole premise of the film depends on an unending money source to propel the individuals to personal fulfillment. Although it could certainly be argued that the real fulfillment of the characters came from reunion with their families, there is a palpable, very important enjoyment they get out of country-hopping and extreme tourism that would be unattainable without Edward’s funds. If they never undertook these extremely individual and selfish acts, could they have been able to reconcile with others? The film doesn’t really tackle this tough issue, as it surely undoes the neat wrapping on the film’s “grab life by the horns and love your family” message. The political and social ramifications of this aspect of the film are huge and seem to possibly indicate that without wealth, the pursuit of individualized happiness is impossible, therefore potentially making interpersonal satisfaction unreachable as well. Without the convenient cash flow of Edward Cole, how would Carter have turned out? Therein lies the REAL film.

by Brandon Colvin

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