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Friday, July 25, 2008

The Bucket List

First movie review

The Bucket List

[Director: Rob Reiner, Writer: Justin Zakham. Released in the US: 11.01. 08. Edward Cole played by Jack Nicholson, Carter Chambers played by Morgan Freeman, ‘Thomas’ played by Sean Hayes. Distributed by Warner Brothers.]

Two old men have got cancer. One is an irascible, egotistical and lonely white billionaire (Edward), divorced several times with an estranged grown-up daughter, the other a firm but quiet black man, a very sharp, very well-read car mechanic who has missed out on college and struggled all his life to give his wife and children the kind of decent middle-class lifestyle he had missed growing up in (Carter). They share the same hospital room while they are undergoing surgery and follow-up chemotherapy. It so happens that Edward owns the hospital. Eventually they are both told they are condemned men, with six months, maybe a year to live. The relationship starts off unpromisingly, but it evolves into something a little less than friendship, a little more than mere nodding acquaintances. Carter had drawn up a ‘bucket list’ - of things he would like to do before he kicked the bucket (this was before he knew his days were numbered). Edward chances to find and read it, and his imagination is fired. He proposes to Carter not only a sudden close friendship but an idea: let’s live it up, doing all the things we had never thought of doing, or thought and laughed away, together, in the little time left to us, and with the vast fortune I have at my disposal (‘it’s all I’ve got!’). There are many things they agree upon, sometimes after a little dithering and bickering: going skydiving, racing the cars of their dreams, and visiting the great tourist hotspots around the world – lording it about in Cole’s private jet, his faithful factotum always in tow, staying and dining in the best places, even pretty and bright young girls at hand, should they be needed. Along the way they have such arguments about God, life, family, love, religion and death, and help each other out in such little but terribly important ways that, although they temporarily cut short the trip and part in a huff (more anger on Edward’s part than on Carter’s), they both realise that they have found something precious and rare in the relationship. While Edward enjoys full remission, Carter has a stroke the very night he has been happily reconciled with his family. The cancer has reached his brain, and despite the best medical efforts and most earnest prayers, he dies on the operating table. But he had fulfilled one of his last wishes on the bucket list before that, ‘laugh until I cry’ (having proved to Edward that he can be a fool!), and he had been smiling contentedly at his wife of 45 years when he was wheeled into the OT, so I guess we might say he was happy when he died.

Carter had left a letter for Edward whose message the latter couldn’t ignore, and so he swallowed his pride and fear and attempted a reconciliation with his daughter. It worked like a charm, and he got to fulfil one of his bucket list wishes (‘kiss the most beautiful girl in the world’, his little granddaughter). While attending Carter’s funeral service with a huge lump in his throat (he was discovering – or, rather, finally acknowledging – a little seen dimension of his character), he decided to cross out yet another, something that Carter had put into the list: ‘Do some good to a complete stranger’, and now that stranger’s memory was the best part of him, and he knew, and publicly admitted ('I loved the man...'), that he was a much better man for it. Carter had insisted upon faith, had told him a story about how in ancient Egypt they said you are only allowed into heaven if you could say yes to two questions: ‘Did you find joy in your life?’ and ‘Did you give joy to somebody?’ Now, Edward felt, he could not only face those questions unflinchingly but say yes to both. Life, not despite the cancer but because of it, had been good to him.

Edward Cole died at the fairly ripe old age of 81, and his ashes were buried (according to his last wish, and against the law, which would have pleased him greatly!) on top of a snow-capped mountain, beside those of his best friend.

I found this movie to be wonderful, the mush and the bad temper notwithstanding. Both Nicholson and Freeman have given superlative performances (how some old men can still show the world a thing or two!); so also Sean Hayes in the role of the quiet, dour, long-suffering personal assistant Thomas (‘actually it’s Mathew, but Edward finds it too Biblical’!) – I couldn’t have imagined that it would be he who took the risk and trouble to climb the mountain and put Cole’s ashes in their final resting place. How much money buys that kind of loyalty, I wonder, or how much love? I am also disappointed to find on the net that Roger Ebert, a critic whom I had come to respect for his generally very balanced, informed and cultured views, has trashed it. Reading his comment (http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080110/REVIEWS/801100301/1023 ), my regard for him has come down several notches. I shall be glad to go into details with anyone who has watched the movie and read through both this review and Ebert’s, but for now let me point out a few things that irked me about Ebert’s comments:

1. I wouldn’t have expected someone of his stature to mix up personal likes and dislikes so badly with what one expects from true criticism: the fact that he starts of by talking about ‘two old codgers who are nothing like people’ gives away his personal distaste, which has little to do with what the movie is really like. The fact that I personally don’t like the colour red or a particular flavour of icecream is okay, but that doesn’t give me a right to say that everybody ought to have the same tastes!
2. He has (deliberately?) ignored facts in his urgent haste to badmouth the movie: unlike what he saw (or thought he saw), there was suffering even during remission, and the wife did take her husband’s sudden truancy hard: Ebert would have liked her to make a much bigger song and dance about it, maybe, but again, that’s entirely a matter of personal taste, not a valid cause for judgment.
3. Ebert has posed as more of a know-all than he is. Okay, he has been through thyroid cancer (though without chemo) while I haven’t, but again, he is wrong to declare, god-like, that he knows how morosely and fearfully all cancer-sufferers behave, and therefore, since these men don’t comply, their story is just a fairy tale. I have someone in my own family who has been battling cancer for the last fourteen years, and her resilience and ebullience could stun Ebert. Maybe someone should tell him to read Tuesdays with Morrie, or Art Buchwald’s Dying is such fun!
4. He calls the two men’s discussions ‘pseudo-profound conversations about the Meaning Of It All’. I have read enough of poetry, philosophy and religion to know that there was nothing ‘pseudo-’ about it. It’s silly and rude teenagers who use that word as a kind of abuse for things they don’t understand and don’t want to: Ebert has some serious growing-up to do.
5. I was much saddened to see that Ebert doesn’t yet know – or want to know – that fairy tales (or rather, more broadly speaking, parables/allegories) serve some very important purposes. Without them, life would become too much of a drag – perhaps not for the likes of him, but they are not the only kind!
6. Finally Ebert writes: ‘I’m thinking, just once, couldn’t the movie open with the voiceover telling us what a great guy the Morgan Freeman character is? Nicholson could say ‘I was a rich, unpleasant, selfish jerk, and this wise, nice guy taught me to feel hope and love.’ Yeah, that would be nice. Because what’s so great about Edward anyway? He throws his money around like a pig and makes Carter come along for the ride. So what?’ Precisely that has been said in the movie, but too quietly for Ebert to hear. It is ironical to see that Ebert condemns Nicholson for 'overacting', because he seems to have gone deaf: he can’t hear things unless they are yelled into his ear. And again, all that comes through his ranting is that he hates (and maybe envies?) all rich men, insisting that their riches prevent them from being good and even hoping for salvation. That’s Bible-belt bigotry of the crudest sort!

Despite Ebert’s comments, the movie seems to have gone down well with ordinary viewers at large, judging by the box-office takings in the first few months (if wikipedia has got it right).

Moral of the story: I am reminded again of Virginia Woolf’s dictum about which books to read (it applies with equal force to movies): the only advice to give is that you should not take anyone’s advice too seriously. Read/watch with an open, attentive and refined mind, then judge for yourself! – I am glad that an old boy of mine, much younger than Roger Ebert and much less ‘learned’, found this movie good enough to persuade me to see it. A big 'Thank you' to him. This was definitely not one of the ten best movies I have seen, but it's definitely not a waste of time either.


Abhijit-Bhabhi said...

Respected Sir

Thank you for the Review. It has prompted me to watch the film very soon.

The part where you say is mentioned " God asks 2 questions to enter Heaven "- personally , I shall remember it for a long time to come. After all, when we have to return to the Creator, empty handed, let our heart be full with the love of those who we helped discover some joy in life.


Abhijit Bharadwaj

Subhanjan said...

"Have you found joy in your life?


Has your life brought joy to others?"

I know I would regret till the last day of my life if I ignore these two questions. Being an ordinary human being, I hardly know anything of life. But there is something that 'The Bucket List' wants me to know once in for all. And it is this: I have to be happy. Life is of two days; and I can not afford to waste it. I have to be happy. And I have to make others happy too.

For a young man like me, it is hard to understand the depth of sorrow and hopelessness that rule over an old man's heart when he knows that he might be having a few hours, or a few days, or at the most a few months to live. So I do not want to pretend that I have understood the movie. It is not ‘possible’ for me to understand. I might have felt my eyes becoming a little bit moist while looking into Edward's eyes when he was at the funeral ceremony of the very man who saved his life. But when I'll be seeing this movie in my old age (which will be the second time and the last time that I will be seeing it; and such huge gap is deliberate as I have realised that I need to know a lot of life before seeing this movie again, so that when I will be seeing it I will be living two truly cherishable hours of my life), I won't be able to afford my eyes to indulge in a powerful emotion triggered by helplessness. By that time I should have prepared my bucket list, and lived it. The only thing that would be left undone would be "to witness something truly majestic".

But honestly speaking, I do not know where to find the joy of my life. Definitely it's not in a burger or a BMW. Then where is it? Is it to be found in love, relationship, adventure, charity, or humour? Quite obviously it is something that I am yet to realise. But will I ever realise it? Will I ever live my bucket list? I know I have to live it. But if I find the joy of my life only in the last days of my life, will I have the time and means to live it? Carter appears to have been unfortunate for not having finished doing all the things mentioned in the bucket list. But in fact he did live them all: He ‘did’ help a complete stranger (Edward) just for good. And he 'did' witness something truly majestic: He too was laid in the mountains just like Edward was laid later by his loyal assistant. Neither Carter, nor Edward would have had a peaceful death without the compassionate relationship that they shared with each other. It was as if those three months of intimacy between these two beings were the only few months of their lives that gave them a meaning to live. Will I have an Edward with me during the last days of my life? Quite obviously I don't know. But what I know is that I would be in 'need' of Edward. Otherwise, how will I answer God when he asks me, "Have the last days of your life brought joy to others? Or were you pining on your personal grief?" In fact I believe every one of us, including Roger Ebert, will have to answer this question. He, whose answer will be a 'no', will surely have no heaven for him. And he whose answer will be a 'yes', he would have reached heaven before his death. Going to heaven is no fairy tale. It can actually happen in the very life that a non-believer calls 'practical living'. Carter knew it when he was parting with his wife for the last time. He already had his last laugh that made him cry. And that is preciously why he was smiling when he was taken into the operation theatre. And the merciful Lord gifted him with the last profound satisfaction: the touch of true love in the last kiss of his dear wife.

While reading that "criticism" by Roger Ebert, the only thing that I felt like saying was that "criticism", according to Ebert, must be somewhat like mindless use of vulgar expressions to defend ones personal belief. Well, if he thinks that this movie talks about a fairy tale, let him think so. But he must not forget that fairy tales too have a lot of important things to say.

And one other thing: If someone can climb the Everest with one leg, two old people, albeit suffering from cancer, can surely enjoy life. My dad, being a doctor, gave a very clear and confident opinion on this, "It is perfectly natural for an old man to make the most of the last few months of his life, even though he is suffering from cancer. Human psychology is too vast to be judged. How a person reacts to the situation he is in, depends, entirely on his psychological strengths and weaknesses. And an old man has nothing to loose. If he does not enjoy the last few months of his life, who will? Now the degree to which one enjoys depends solely on one's psychological structure. I am really happy to know that a movie has been made on such a wonderful theme. One has to be aware of the kind of stress that patients go through during their stay in a hospital. They prey to God for wings to free themselves from their pain so that they can be happy. Who wants to rot on a hospital bed? That too in the last few months of his life!" Not surprisingly, one will observe in the movie that the doctors do not object to the wild plans of Andrew and Carter. But it is Carter's ignorant wife who does so. And Roger Ebert is just as ignorant. Or may be he is not. Perhaps he was paid well for his attempt to tarnish the image of this movie.

ANWESHA said...

Dear Sir

This is a story which shows what is the real zest for life.
as you said that there was a king whose life was very adventurous and he knew that he would die in a few days.
He said that he will fight more battles and will die in the battlefield.
Therefore his life was full of adventures even in the end.
I think that the lives of these two men were the same.
They discovered adventure and happiness which majority cannot.
Afterall they knew the real meaning of friendship.
They knew life was to live for each other.
Therefore both of them were happy till the end.


Anwesha Mukherjee

Sudipto Basu said...

Dear Sir,
Apologies for the rather late comment, but I did manage to watch the movie in the meantime.

I concur with you on most points. One, Roger Ebert's comments are biased and reek of his personal dislike of Nicholson and Freeman (though I cannot understand why: the occasional blunder aside, both are sincere actors in their own right!). Also, he does tend to generalise a lot, and maybe, with time, the fame he has achieved has started to sink into his head-- his know-it-all attitude about how cancer patients behave, or should behave, is clearly indicative of that. Which, in a way, is alarming for me: as a novice movie-reviewer, Ebert was one of the persons I looked up to. I just hope that this was a stray mistake on his part. Maybe he was in a sulky and bad mood on the day he reviewed The Bucket List, and wrote off the film in a hurry without clearly paying attention to details.

Now, about the film itself. The Bucket List is one of those movies that portray the American way of life, though I have to concede that this particular angle was subdued in the movie itself-- I just happened to notice it. Edward is the self-made American tycoon, complete with all the typical idiosyncrasies, like a bloated ego, and a even more bloated idea of good taste. Carter is the quiet and meditative man, who inspite of his day job as a car mechanic, finds time to read, understand, ponder and know-- a man who does not complain about the huge sacrifices he has made, but takes life sportingly with renewed enthusiasm everyday. The difference in the personae of the two men is evident in the way they react to the news that cancer has been diagnosed in them. This angle aside, I think everything about the movie has been discussed in sufficient detail in your review, so I can skip commenting on those as well.

Oh yes, another thing. While I agree to some extent with Ebert that a deadly disease like cancer has been tackled a bit light-heartedly, I do not think that it is a serious handicap to the movie. In fact, if Forrest Gump can simplify the journey of a remarkable man through life, and yet be so revered in movie circles, and enjoyed even today, what is wrong with the way The Bucket List deals with cancer? What would Ebert have preferred? Anyway, two people wallowing in self-pity and sorrow/melancholy wouldn't have made a remarkable story, much less a film!

Partha Chatterjee said...

Whenever I feel that it has been a long time since I have seen a movie which has left an impression on my mind I always go back to my teacher and truly speaking he has never dissapointed me. One day I was just browsing Sir's hard disk when I came across this movie. I asked him about it. He asked me to watch it myself.
It has been one of the most satisfying two hours of my life. I had seen it almost a couple of months ago but I can still recollect some of the scenes that has left a mark on me.My favourite scene is the one where Jack Nicholsan and Morgan Freeman discuss the two questions on the pyramid summit.
Sky diving and some of the other activities were of great fun.
After seeing this movie I have started making my own list which I would like to do before I hit the bucket.I would definitely go for a tatoo. I will have my own Aston Martin and would spent a week in one of the beautiful resorts of the world.I fancy Mauritius or Hawaii Islands. It may seem a bit far fetched but I intend to do them.
Finally Sir an excellent review. After completing this post I am going to see the movie again. Thanks to you.