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Friday, May 16, 2008
'The Bucket List'
Measuring a thing called 'closure'
One of the fuzzier concepts floating around the cloud of pop psychology that has descended upon America in the last decade —like some wizard's curse of stupefaction — is that of "closure." A term lifted from Gestalt psychology by way of grief counseling, its popular meaning has become merely the period at the end of the sentence, the actions taken or feelings resolved that allow trauma and grief to be done with, and for life to move on. As Americans are fond of telling each other, "Get over it."
But real life is not as neat and tidily resolved as a Hollywood movie. Try telling an Iraq war vet with post-traumatic stress, or a child molested by his parish priest that there's some magic way to "close" this pain in their lives. Things such as "treatment" or "justice" are possible; so is coping. But closure is an illusion. All processes are ongoing, all past experience — both wonderful and terrible — echoes on in our present.
Maybe it is the fault of movies that we have this unrealistic expectation of closure. Take a look at some Euro or art movies and you'll find many examples of ambiguous endings where the viewer is left to wonder how things turn out. Hollywood producers would rather eat a bowl of steamy dog mess than ever let that happen in a movie. (See the notorious battle over the ending of "Blade Runner," for one example.)
Hollywood demands a clear ending, unless of course, it's a set-up for a sequel.
Director Rob Reiner's "The Bucket List" (Japanese title: "Saikou no Jinsei no Mitsukekata"), a heartwarming comedy with the intriguing pairing of Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson in the leads, offers the notion that a life can have closure; that in our last days, we will find the words and actions to put that period on the sentence of seven decades on this planet.
I'm not sure I buy this, but it's a nice thought. It's hard enough to find comedy in chemotherapy, and Reiner manages that, so let's give him some benefit of the doubt.
"The Bucket List" takes its name from a list of things you'd like to do before kicking the proverbial bucket. The list in the film is drawn up by auto-mechanic Carter (Freeman) when the doctors tell him he has advanced cancer and about six months left to live. Carter is just scribbling his list, but when his wealthy and cantankerous hospital roommate Edward (Nicholson) finds it, he starts adding to it. Also diagnosed with mere months to live, Edward — who's slowly grown to like Carter — offers to pay for everything, and soon the two men are sky diving, visiting the Pyramids, and hiking in the Himalayas.
Imagine the oldster odd-couple of "Grumpy Old Men" crossed with the travelogue of "Jumper," and you've pretty much got "The Bucket List." It's fairly predictable but funny in spurts, and always engaging thanks to the talent of its leads. Freeman can do dignity and integrity in his sleep, but he also adds a sly mischievous side here. Nicholson is close to his curmudgeonly misanthrope in "As Good as it Gets," all bad-boy grin even at this age, but there's a vulnerability too — maybe it's just the scar running down his head after brain surgery, but it makes him sad and pitiable.
Amid the jokes, with the duo racing Chevies and getting tattoos, the film attempts to wrestle with the question of how does one find closure at the end of one's days? You can have Morgan Freeman read anything in voiceover in that stately, measured baritone of his and it will sound profound, but take a line like the following: "It's difficult to measure the sum of a person's life. You measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you." Damned if I know what that's supposed to mean.
The film's on firmer ground when Carter, sitting atop a pyramid at Giza, talks Egyptian mythology with Edward. The ancient Egyptians, he says, believed that when they got to heaven the gods would ask them two questions: Have you found joy in life, and has your life brought joy to others?
As you can imagine, the film's climax involves warm, family-guy Freeman convincing cynical, material-boy Nicholson of this notion, and we get a seen-it-coming-a-mile-away denouement. It's pop-culture closure and contrived and sappy, and it works. It's a credit to Nicholson and Freeman that they make it work; at their age (both are 71) there's only so many years left in the careers, and the pathos of this gives the film greater poignancy. Have their lives brought joy to others? You bet.