The miraculous thing about Jack Nicholson is that he can make even schmaltz entertaining. Perhaps it's the deep-in-the-bone sense of mischief that courses through many of his performances. Some screw is permanently loose, leading to such whacked-out delights as The Shining, the nastiness in Five Easy Pieces, the raunchy rebelliousness of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Terms of Endearment, even the surly focus of Chinatown. He has the gift of being ironic and totally present at the same time.
The Bucket List, which opens today, is part of the Nicholson oeuvre that includes Anger Management, Wolf, Batman, Something's Gotta Give, even The Departed - the films made for the masses rather than the classes.
The film, a comedy, tells the story of two disparate old men, Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, who meet in a cancer ward, then go on a spree doing everything on their "bucket list," a rather blunt term for all the things they want to do before, well, before they kick the bucket. With a little help from their friends in CG, Nicholson and Freeman climb mountains, jump out of airplanes, visit the Taj Mahal. Without Nicholson's imprimatur of cool, The Bucket List would have a hard time attracting the text-generation audience, or even the more sophisticated soccer moms, but Jack has panache.
He's amusing as his character zips around the speedway in a race car, his trademark grin still radiant and maniacal, despite the fact that it's now encased in layers of fat. That's triumph of the will over the ravages of the body. Nicholson could give a master acting class on how to turn girth into an amusing prop, tossing and turning in his hospital bed like a giant baby convinced of his own cuteness.
In real life, 70-year-old Nicholson looks pretty good. In fact, in chinos and a dark shirt, he's relatively thin and sprightly. His hair, though thinning, stands straight up with an unexpected fluffiness, like freshly washed baby hair. Like Nicholson's main house, his office decor also seems to have stopped somewhere in the mid-'70s, with olive tones and square furniture, and great paintings by famous Modernists on the wall. For a gazillionaire, it's unpretentious.
Freeman, dapper in a blue jacket, has also stopped by. In the film, he ably partners Nicholson with suave smoothness.
Nicholson says cheerily that that was no fat suit in the movie. "I was in the hospital for a long time just before, so normally I have to train and I didn't have a chance. That was me, all right."
Bucket List director Rob Reiner, who's known Nicholson for ages (and cast him so memorably in A Few Good Men), says one of the lines in the film comes right out of Nicholson's experience. "I've never been sick before," says Nicholson's character, Edward, a wealthy hospital magnate, as he's suddenly forced into a stay at one of his own facilities.
"Jack had never been in the hospital," Reiner says. "It was very upsetting for him and very scary to be doing a part that touches on issues of mortality. He took his experience and brought it to the character."
"Comedy comes from real," Nicholson says. "A friend of mine said, 'It's always the things that you don't do in life that you regret most, not the things you do do.' If you talk to nurses, they'll tell you they pretty much know who has got a fighting chance, and it has to do with anger.
"You've got to be angry like this guy is," says the actor referring to his character, who's got more money than he can ever spend but no family or friends. "You don't care what it is, you're going to fight it, whether it's your own hospital or your best friend. Whatever it is, he is ready to go to war over it because he basically is a fighter, and that fight has left him rather lonely, surrounded by money, so to speak."
Freeman's character, Carter, an autodidactic garage mechanic, has a different kind of battle, against "the accusation of failure, of giving up." He must come to terms with having had to forgo his own dreams when he unexpectedly found himself a father at a young age. "I didn't feel anger from him," says Freeman. "A certain level of frustration because as high as he got was a garage mechanic, but he also had children who were really successful, so how do you measure yourself?"
This said, Freeman's mechanic is not resigned to his fate either. "You going to sit around and wait for this to happen with tubes sticking out and people moaning you to death, or are you going to go out and make some moves?"
The film is designed to make audiences laugh, not cry - or at least provide some giggles among the pathos. It's tricky terrain that Nicholson has trod before - in the films of James L. Brooks, such as Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets. Nicholson is aware how hard it is to wring humor about "the thing that everybody worries about": mortality.
Death is certainly a big honking topic. "As my old acting teacher said, it provides a stimulating point of departure. It is a tiptoe job." He flashes his famous smile. The eyebrows do the Jack dance. "They don't do difficulty points in movies."
Rachel Abramowitz writes for the Los Angeles Times.