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The Bucket List Movie Essay Reviews

The comedic buddy film challenges us to think about terminal illness and life itself

“The Bucket List” is not only a comedic buddy movie, but also a unique and thought-provoking look at terminal illness. Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson share the screen as the film’s protagonists, Carter Chambers and Edward Cole.


The two characters’ backgrounds are very different. Carter Chambers has been a car mechanic his entire life. He got married and had his first child right after high school, and eventually fathered three children. He’s also a trivia whiz. Throughout the movie, he offers various factoids about caviar, dogs being struck by lightning, Egyptian history, the Taj Mahal, Buddhism and more. Edward Cole, on the other hand, has built a hospital empire, been married and divorced four times and is extraordinarily wealthy.

Almost as soon as the movie begins, we learn that they share at least one thing in common: cancer. Each has, at most, one year to live. They are introduced to each other when they become roommates in a hospital’s cancer ward. (Edward also happens to be the owner of the hospital.)

It’s not clear exactly what kind of cancer each man has. Edward’s cancer is seemingly the most advanced, as he goes into brain surgery relatively quickly after learning of his condition. After the surgery, he begins chemotherapy. We also learn that Carter has already had chemo, and he tells Edward what to expect as far as side effects are concerned.

At about the 26-minute mark of the film we learn about the eponymous “bucket list.” A bucket list is, according to Merriam-Webster, “a list of things that one has not done before but wants to do before dying.” The bucket list in the film is originally Carter’s. We see him jotting down the first few items, and Edward asks him what he’s writing. Carter is reluctant to divulge any information at first, and he eventually crumbles the list up and tosses it on the floor.

Edward discovers the crumbled piece of yellow paper, opens it and asks Carter about its contents. Long story short, Edward pushes the bucket list idea forward. He thinks they should leave the hospital to live their final months to the fullest. Carter claims it was only a metaphorical list, and that he really had no intention of fulfilling these dreams.


Edward eventually convinces Carter to join him on the bucket list journey. But it’s not without some hiccups at first. When Carter mentions the idea to his wife, Virginia, she is appalled. She accuses him of giving up on their children and giving up on her. He replies that the reality is quite the opposite. He sacrificed so much for so long to ensure that they were well off and comfortable, and now it’s his time to experience life. This is one of the main themes of the movie: “What does it mean to truly live?”

Soon after Edward and Carter depart on their journey, Virginia gets in touch with Edward. She tells him that she’s, “not prepared to lose [Carter] before he dies,” and she wants her husband back. After the call, Edward feels guilty about having “stolen” Carter from his family, and confronts Carter about his conversation with Virginia.

Responding, Carter mentions a “hole” he felt after his daughter left for college. (She is much younger than his two elder sons.) He says it was strange for him because he couldn’t remember what it was like to walk down a street without his wife and children by his side. He never felt true autonomy because he had had children at such a young age. And finally now, on the bucket list journey, he’s felt something that he hasn’t felt for most of his life.

“The Bucket List” does a great job of comparing and contrasting Edward’s and Carter’s lives — the paths they’ve taken and what it all means. There’s a stark contrast between the two. Carter has a large family and he’s loved by many. Edward on the other hand, doesn’t really have a family. Carter brings up the idea of “dying alone” numerous times, and (until the end of the film) Edward really doesn’t want to hear anything about that. Despite their differences, they are both terminally ill, and decide that they will not let their diseases define their final months.

A Thought-Provoking Look At Terminal Illness

The main plot of the movie is, to be honest, a bit absurd. That two elderly men in a cancer ward can escape and subsequently travel around the world is farfetched. Edward is insanely rich, and has a private jet, so in that sense it could be possible. However some of the things they check off the bucket list are pretty crazy.


For one, they go skydiving. They also speed around in muscle cars on a racetrack, bumping into each other all-the-while. There is definitely a positive feel to the movie during these moments, which is fine. However, there is also a brief time when you almost forget that these men are terminally ill. This does not last all that long though, as they do experience their difficulties with illness throughout their travels.

Without giving too much away, “The Bucket List” is a movie about life, family, the pursuit of joy and trying to share that joy with others. Edward and Carter meet each other at the end of their lives, but they form a very strong bond by the conclusion of the film. Edward speaks at Carter’s funeral, and says, “I hope that it doesn’t sound selfish of me but…the last months of his life were the best months of mine. He saved my life…And he knew it before I did.”

“The Bucket List” is definitely a Hollywood movie. But it does provide us with a different way to think about terminal illness. It’s an interesting look at how cancer can affect patients’ families. It touches on many of life’s more confusing and profound questions. Of course, it’s not very realistic. Nevertheless, it does make you think about what’s important, and that is always a good thing.

This entry was posted in Lending Insight and tagged Bucket List, Cancer, Family, Hollywood, Jack Nicholson, Life, Morgan Freeman, Movies about death, Movies about terminal illness, terminal illness, The Bucket List. Bookmark the permalink.

Their initial adventures, like sky diving and race car driving, are high-adrenaline stunts embraced with macho zeal; they even visit a tattoo parlor. As they follow an itinerary that takes them to the south of France, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Himalayas and Hong Kong, these stopovers, obviously filmed on a soundstage, have all the reality of snapshots photographed in front of travel posters.

On the sexual front, the happily married Carter demurs when opportunity presents itself. But nothing has ever prevented Edward, who has been married and divorced four times, from pursuing continuous novelty. The movie mercifully spares us the spectacle of Mr. Nicholson, whalelike at 70, in full rutting mode.

Directed by Rob Reiner from a sketchy screenplay by Justin Zackham, “The Bucket List” fails its stars in fundamental ways. Mr. Nicholson has played wealthy rogues before (most recently in “Something’s Gotta Give”), but this particular bon vivant is unsalvageably repellent. The actor’s frantic mugging, guffawing and eyebrow twitching only underscore the character’s pompous self-satisfaction. By the time the movie allows Edward a token gesture of humanity (his guilt-stricken attempt to reunite with an estranged daughter he cruelly betrayed), it is too little too late.

Carter is the one who initially brings up the notion of “the bucket list,” a roster of must-have experiences to be pursued before “kicking the bucket.” We are asked to accept that this dignified sage has been happily toiling as an auto mechanic for 46 years after forgoing his higher education to support a family. Anyone this articulate and composed would have risen far above day-laborer status.

Largely self-taught, Carter keeps himself in mental shape by watching “Jeopardy!” and competing out loud with the contestants. During their travels he is a font of geographic and historical trivia.

For all the kindly gravity he puts into the role, Mr. Freeman cannot begin to make you believe that a quiet family man like Carter would abandon his loyal wife (Beverly Todd) during his final months of life to go on a spree with a rascally egomaniac. I don’t imagine Mr. Freeman believes it either.

Saddest of all, the professed spiritual goals on the pair’s checklist of things to do — “laugh till you cry,” “witness something majestic” — are the kind of pallid bromides found in the pages of a quickie self-help book: “I’m Not O.K., and Neither Are You.”

“The Bucket List” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has off-color dialogue.


Opens on Tuesday in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto.

Directed by Rob Reiner; written by Justin Zackham; director of photography, John Schwartzman; edited by Robert Leighton; music by Marc Shaiman; production designer, Bill Brzeski; produced by Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Alan Greisman and Mr. Reiner; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes.

WITH: Jack Nicholson (Edward Cole), Morgan Freeman (Carter Chambers), Sean Hayes (Thomas), Rob Morrow (Dr. Hollins) and Beverly Todd (Virginia).

The Bucket List

  • DirectorRob Reiner

  • WriterJustin Zackham

  • StarsJack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman

  • RatingPG-13

  • Running Time1h 37m

  • GenresAdventure, Comedy, Drama

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    Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
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