|Scene from The Bucket List|
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way.
Subject: Jack Nicholson has reportedly retired from acting.
Theory: The Bucket List is underrated.
It was recently reported that actor Jack Nicholson has retired from acting. This is according to his friend Peter Fonda, who helped give him his start in the counterculture classic Easy Rider. To a certain demographic, this seems a tad obvious. After all, he hasn't appeared in a movie since 2010's How Do You Know (even then as a small supporting role) and four years since he made a cameo presenting Best Picture at the 2013 Oscars alongside a video of Michelle Obama. In fact, it was around then that gossip rags began spreading the rumor initially. His publicist suggested that this rumor was false. Speaking as Fonda is more of a legitimate resource than the gossip rag that sent people into a fervor, it feels like it's true this time - even if not very many of the details have actually changed otherwise.
To be honest, I have a bias towards Nicholson. He is my favorite actor of all time, and it's hard to argue with why. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a masterpiece that shows his strengths so well. He pretty much owns every role he takes and finds way to infuse his charisma with a bit of himself. I admit that sometimes you knew that you were watching Nicholson the performer. Yet I don't care. Cinema is such a suggestive form anyway that you almost buy into a character not because of their talent, but because of a deeper bond that the viewer has with that performer. It's why Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne resonate so well (though in fairness, both did amazing work). To me, there's something about Nicholson that I can't help but love.
It is why I chose him for this week's Theory Thursday. To be honest, it's a tad difficult to find much of a disagreeable opinion for him. He is very much a master of his craft and I love most of the obvious hits. Speaking as I already wrote about why he deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination for The Departed, there wasn't much room to go here. Instead, I will discuss his penultimate movie, which I feel has faded into this weird obscurity that is neither favorable nor necessarily too positive. It's for a film that has entered the vernacular, but I feel has become forgettable to many in the process. You see, I want to make the case that director Rob Reiner's The Bucket List is an underrated film.
Admittedly, there is some shtick to the film's set-up that you'd find in any senior citizen adventure film. You find it in The Grand Budapest Hotel franchise for instance. As mentioned before, you go more because you empathize with the performer that you've seen age on screen and in your life, feeling some solace that they're still working. It's part of the subtext as to why Nicholson and Morgan Freeman work in this movie for me. If anything, it's the epitome of this novel approach, but with a story that is so effectively sweet and full of wonder. By the end, I find myself moved enough to think that this self-reflection of life in old age has more poignancy than its sometimes rocky script would suggest. If it means anything, I also have the pretty popular opinion that this was Reiner's last good movie as director.
There's not much to really get into here. Two men who are on the verge of death decide to go on one last frivolous journey to do everything on their bucket list. They have the old odd couple formula that was perfected in Grumpy Old Men and manage to add some depth to it by juxtaposing them into weird situations. Their journeys feature the familiar reluctance and acceptance to give dangerous things a try. There's even a catty and competitive nature to it all that produces some hearty laughs. Most of all, these two actors have strong chemistry together while Reiner manages to add tenderness to the moments where they have to discuss family and their own vulnerability.
Is it a runaway smash? No. However, it does have two top of their class actors doing a comedy that has a bittersweet undertone. The fact that they hadn't worked together prior is a pretty big crime unto itself (though I definitely say that more for Nicholson and Scorsese). They know how to have fun as old people, and the plot is so novel that it almost doesn't matter what happens. This is your typical tale in which life plays its cruel mysteries one by one. Having a friend by your side makes things easier. There's a maturity to it that makes you wish that Reiner's later work was more than schmaltz. Admittedly, The Bucket List is plenty schmaltz, but it is the type that suits easy entertainment. Neither actor necessarily does bad at looking like they're enjoying life, and in the process remind movie goers why they watched their movies for all those decades.
Freeman has probably done a few dozen great movies in the years since (not to mention The Dark Knight the following year), but Nicholson has trailed off significantly. For a man who was always celebrated for his vivaciousness, it's weird to have his departure happen unceremoniously. It's also a bummer that his last film was How Do You Know, which wasn't a good movie and was a notorious bomb for being a $100 million budget romantic comedy. Where did that money go? Mostly salaries. I get why Nicholson did it (he loves to work with James L. Brooks), but it will be baffling to see such a revolutionary figure go out on a forgettable box office bomb in a forgettable role. While I wished that he would act some more, I still think that The Bucket List would've been a more poignant send-off, which especially works given his then recent trend of starring as contemplative elderly men (see: About Schmidt).
The Bucket List works as a send-off for an acting great not because it's a movie on par with his best work, but almost that it does for Nicholson what On Golden Pond did for Henry Fonda. It gave him one last role to remind people why they loved watching his movies. Fonda's chemistry with Katharine Hepburn was infectious. One could say the same for Nicholson and Freeman as a perfect buddy pair. I accept that Nicholson is old and I am fine with his retirement. He leaves behind such an enviable body of work, and I'm probably going to cry when he does kick the bucket. For now, I feel like suggesting that this is a good movie isn't such a bad thing. I admit it's far from his best (even that decade, it falls pretty low), but it's not the 40% on Rotten Tomatoes bad that I think people perceive it as. I may turn to About Schmidt more than I do The Bucket List, but both have their value depending on mood. I just hope Nicholson's retirement does him well.