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Old Acquaintance

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Would it have been asking too much to cast Morgan Freeman as the billionaire and Jack Nicholson as the working stiff? "The Bucket List," directed by Rob Reiner, wouldn't have been much better, but maybe it would have been a tad less predictable.

Reiner and his fellow filmmakers probably believe they made the perfect buddy movie, about Carter (Freeman) and Edward (Nicholson), two men -- white and black, rich and poor, pessimistic and hopeful — who embark on what could be called a forced victory lap of life, checking off as many last-minute dreams as they can before cancer claims them.

What makes the list? Driving a race car, skydiving, helping a stranger, kissing the most beautiful girl in the world — you know, stuff only a professional Hollywood screenwriter could dream up. Their decision, to spend their last days living out as many final wishes as possible, could be interesting, but it's important to note that it was explored long before this movie, and with more intellectual verve, by Homer Simpson.

What "The Bucket List" values in brains can be found in Carter, a mechanic with a head full of Trivial Pursuit cards who still dreams of being a history scholar and driving a Mustang Shelby. These details are notable — a Mustang and not a more classy ride for a smart, resourceful mechanic of 45 years still lacking his dream car — though not in the breezy way the movie intends. "The Bucket List" is trying to hit a formula but ends up pure Hollywood hokum, as if its parts were assembled on the back lot of implausibilities and coincidences you can see coming and going.

Edward owns the hospital, but despite his wealth shares a room with Carter because of his own stingy policies ("I run hospitals, not health spas!" are the rued words). They don't receive personalities, just quirks — Carter's affinity with facts (he's the kind of guy who knows all the answers on "Jeopardy"); Edward's cantankerous retorts and flamboyant riches. It doesn't help that Freeman and Nicholson were so transparently typecast to play these two versions of themselves, or at least the "Entertainment Tonight" versions their fans expect. (I see Nicholson as an irascible malcontent. Freeman is a wizened savant, but full of faith.) The only real surprises in this movie are what's left out, like inquiry into Carter's wasted intellect or Edward's greed. The movie wants too much to be on their side, so instead we learn of Carter's uncertainty about his marriage (golly) and Edward's estrangement from his daughter (gee). Maybe a ride in a new car will help.

And so Carter and Edward begin their list, which ranges from conventional to mundane to downright silly. First, the two roar around a racetrack, bumping each other's cars and jumping them over embankments in a sequence that makes you cringe to imagine serious craftspeople filming it. Similarly, the two end up in the back of a cargo plane in jumpsuits and goggles screaming things at each other like, "I hate your guts!" One wonders at this point if Reiner is in full control of his faculties.

Classics such as "This Is Spinal Tap," "The Princess Bride" and "When Harry Met Sally" are long behind him, and since then Meathead has been given his share of breaks. Cast your gaze — briefly, lest the orbs be engulfed — on such recent pyres as "The Story of Us" and "Rumor Has It ...." There comes a time to revoke the license, and if that time didn't come before the sight of Nicholson and Freeman riding a motorcycle across the Great Wall of China, it has certainly arrived now.

And what of the actors? Freeman is contractually obligated to provide every rumbling voice of African-American sagacity in film. Nicholson's case is harder to figure. He was already in the best movie about older people, "About Schmidt," which capped an otherwise remarkable career. Maybe his agreeing to this role, similar but so obviously inferior, says more about actors, or just more than the movie intended about the stubborn denial of death. At the unusual close of "Schmidt," Nicholson's bedraggled retiree ends his rally on a down note, convinced that, though he tried to change his life, he failed and no one cared. As he asks into the thin air of his empty house, What will I be remembered for? "When I die, and the few people who knew me die, it will be as if I never even existed." The most important thing you need to know about "The Bucket List" is that it arrives at the same mountaintop with the completely opposite point of view — one not simply incompatible, but, more importantly, unearned. (PG-13) 97 min. S



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