One of the oldest jokes in Hollywood describes the five stages of an acting career: 1. “Who’s John Smith?” 2. “Get me a John Smith type.” 3. “Get me John Smith.” 4. “Get me a young John Smith.” 5. “Who’s John Smith?”
It’s sad but true, this commodification of a would-be artist, even sadder for the fact that the above describes a career that most actors—who never get beyond the “who’s John Smith?” stage—would kill for. But there’s an unnamed career stage that’s sadder still. It seemed to have happened a while back to Gene Hackman, and to Christopher Walken every time he becomes a film’s resident repository of non-sequitur quirkiness. While last fall’s Feast of Love appeared to be pointing Morgan Freeman in the same direction, The Bucket List finds him comfortably reclined there, and taking fellow Oscar-winner Jack Nicholson along with him. This is the unspoken sixth stage of a veteran actor’s career: when you become your own “type.”
It’s clear from the opening moments, when we hear Freeman’s voice introducing the story as we glimpse a figure in a parka climbing a snowy mountain, and wonder if the marching penguins are nearby. A quick flashback later, we’re introduced to Freeman’s character, an auto mechanic who has just learned that he has cancer. He sits in his hospital bed, radiating that faintly weary dignity that has become almost oppressively connected to Freeman. Does anyone even remember when he could play someone like the creepy pimp in Street Smart?
Sharing Chambers’ hospital room is the billionaire CEO of the company that runs the hospital (Nicholson), but whose personal assistant insists that getting a private room would be bad public relations. Nicholson’s character is an insensitive, philandering bon vivant who greets life with a grin and a raised eyebrow—in short, he’s playing Jack Nicholson. When the two men both get word that their prognosis is bleak, Nicholson offers to finance an end-of-life adventure to do all the things they promised they’d get to some day—the “bucket list” of the title.
Even if you happen to enjoy the kind of grumpy-old-terminally-ill-men shenanigans on display in The Bucket List, you have to find it depressing to watch two once-great talents relegated to what is clearly paycheck work. The Bucket List is an example of Hollywood doing what it does best: packaging elements in a way that makes it comfortably familiar to its target audience. How sad that two of those “elements” are talented men, and the “package” is a box in which they may be trapped.