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Originally published Friday, January 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Bucket List" is full of sap

"The Bucket List's" craft is as impeccable as moviemaking technique and computer tricks can be. But boiled into a formula that is sometimes cloying and sweet, the movie is nonetheless a lazy low-grade product.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 1.5 stars

"The Bucket List," with Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes, Beverly Todd, Rob Morrow. Directed by Rob Reiner, from a screenplay by Justin Zackham. 97 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language, including a sexual reference. Showtimes.

"The Bucket List" sounds like a terrific title for some finely crafted indie movie that plays on the figurative irony of a man harvesting sloshing pails from an old maple grove to make his precious few bottles of syrup in a dilapidated sugar shack.

There's plenty of figurative sap in the real story of "The Bucket List," and the craft is as impeccable as moviemaking technique and computer tricks can be. But it's tapped directly from corporate Hollywood, where the word irony is only heard when striking writers are describing the metal gates locking them out of the studio. Made with high-value ingredients and boiled into a formula that is sometimes cloying and sweet, "The Bucket List" is nonetheless a lazy low-grade product.

The high-concept pitch is a story of two geezers with terminal cancer who make a list of all the things they want to do before they die — and then do them. Geezer No. 1 is Morgan Freeman, playing a fact-filled wise man offering sage advice in the pious baritone phrasing we've known since "The Shawshank Redemption," complete with similar heart-tugging narration. His Carter Chambers is a lifelong mechanic (and probably smoker) who sacrificed his intellect and ambition to provide for his family and now finds himself facing regret from a hospital bed.

Sharing his room is Jack Nicholson as Edward Cole, geezer No. 2 and a lonely, selfish health-care tycoon who just happens to own the hospital that's treating him. His stingy precancerous self proclaimed that there would be no private rooms in his empire, hence the conveniently dramatic device of forcing the pauper and the billionaire into friendship — after lots of slapstick and philosophizing.

The nature of the men's illnesses isn't specified, but for Edward it may have something to do with obesity. Nicholson is positively Brando-esque in stature and demeanor; you can almost see ham scraps flying from jowl to scenery as he chews it up in a feeding frenzy of rolled eyebrows and leering grins.

In another stroke of script-writing luck, their diseases drift into remission, allowing the new pals to dive into the list they've scribbled with a burst of pre-doom vigor. They skydive and drive race cars; they safari; they visit the Pyramids, Hong Kong, the Côte d'Azur, the Himalayas and the Great Wall of China — all on Edward's dime. The backgrounds are computer rendered with eye-rubbing hyper-realism while Edward and Carter kvetch, learn or teach each other life lessons from the comfort of a blue-screened soundstage. Their twilight stroll around the Taj Mahal is a paroxysm of digital splendor and conspicuous fakery.

Director Rob Reiner (who must be longing for a hit after a career lull of so many misses) drags his able, engaging but uninspired stars around with a sluggishness that inhabits the whole movie. Contrived though they may be, each actor takes on his allotted emotional scenes with required prowess. The script, the direction and the acting aren't bad so much as lethargic in the details. A gentle twist at the end may have packed more of a kick if this bucket hadn't been so leaky.

Ted Fry: tedfry@hotmail.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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