Rob Reiner’s feelgood cancer-com begins with Morgan Freeman’s heavy-gravitas voiceover. Now, can you guess that this film yields few surprises? Sure, there are pleasures to be had from Freeman and Jack Nicholson as terminally ill old dogs getting up to mortality-be-damned mischief. But Reiner doesn’t exactly rustle up a resounding send-off.
Clunker number one: car mechanic Carter Chambers (Freeman) receives a phone call so distressing, he drops his cigarette. Get it? Before you know it, he’s in hospital with cancer, sharing a room with billionaire Edward Cole (Nicholson). Clunker number two: this is your average opposites-bonding buddy movie, Chambers being a family man and Cole a bottom-line man. Their middle-ground meeting point is Chambers’ ‘bucket list’, a summation of the things you’re burning to do before the call of the kicked bucket. They’re soon sky-diving, car-racing – all the youthful adventures that craggy cats on chemo usually find tough to enjoy. Think Cocoon sans aliens, with ersatz emo-subtexts sprouting from the under-nourished subplots of the dreams Chambers sacrificed for his family and Cole’s estranged daughter.
Plus points? These two seasoned duffers aren’t immortal, so it’s sweet to see them simultaneously acting their ages and showing some still-young-at-heart spunk, even if they aren’t so much playing to type as superglued to it. Growing old disgracefully, if you like – a cliché we’ll take on the grounds that List trots out worse. If throats lump up occasionally, it’s this pair’s history that prompts it – a hospitalised, head-shaved Nicholson conjuring memories of the wayward-in-youth Cuckoo’s Nest Jack, for example.
Even so, it’s tough to forget how much better-served Nicholson was by, say, About Schmidt. Sure, this is a journey with a pre-planned route. Nothing so wrong with that, if those involved tease in twist-threads or provide the panache of conviction. As it is, Reiner and his scriptwriter pitch at a basic level and cling to it. The most resonant line here? “I’ve taken baths deeper than you…”