Considering Rob Reiner's output lately (twelve years since The American President, his last decent film), it's tempting to call The Bucket List a triumph, if only on the grounds that it's not awful. The problem is that it isn't any good either, which can be blamed squarely on the two protagonists, who at no moment in the film's 97 minutes act in any way like human beings.

This is a failure in the writing, but even more than that it's a failure of the lead actors, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, who might very well be the two laziest performers in Hollywood. Please don't take me the wrong way - I love both of them very much, and I love their shtick. But shtick it is, and neither one of them has done very much in the last decade or so to shake things up. I admit that Freeman isn't nearly so bad about this as his co-star, who has indeed made an industry out of playing Jack. Either way, neither man has the necessary passion, or even the consciousness, to turn a middling script into a triumph.

In The Bucket List, they play two old men dying of cancer. One of them is Edward Cole, an unbelievably wealthy man who owns many things including hospitals. He is smug and sarcastic and prone to outbursts. The other is Carter Chambers, who has a wife and three children and 45 years as a mechanic. He is soft-spoken and when he says things they are wise and profound and spiritual, and through his influence, Edward learns to be less of a human slug. I will leave it as an exercise for the read to guess which actor plays which role.

In a nutshell, here's what went wrong: Edward and Carter are movie characters. Not for one second do you forget that. When they speak, they speak in movie dialogue, and when they act, they are performers working through blocking. They have movie cancer, and they deal with it in a movie fashion: to celebrate life, they journey around the world having adventures such as skydiving and riding a motorcycle over the Great Wall of China. They're doing this to check items of a "bucket list," something Carter's freshman philosophy professor suggest everyone should put together: a list of everything you want to do before you kick the bucket.

I will not pretend that I don't understand the appeal of this sort of material: it seeks to make the audience feel better about mortality by suggesting that the most important thing is to be loved. Which really means that it states it outright, without any sort of intelligence or craft. Late in her life, Pauline Kael said of another Jack Nicholson vehicle, As Good As It Gets, that it was extremely primitive, the kind of movie a caveman would make (I can't find the quote online, but I have an odd suspicion it was in an Entertainment Weekly interview). The Bucket List is also a film that a caveman would make, grinding the characters through a course of excruciatingly simplistic psychodrama.

There's something honestly relaxing about this kind of film, where you can almost see the gears of the plot mechanism ticking away. It doesn't take much effort and it's kind of interesting, as an abstraction, to watch how every moment reflects in a barbarically literal way upon subsequent moments; nothing happens, everything has been assembled. It's restive, I think is the word, undemanding and unrewarding but soothing to notice that boilerplate cinema is working the way it's supposed to.

And again, it's not "awful." It's damnably perfunctory, but it's not awful. Once, a long time ago, Reiner was a great entertainer, and you can see that here. Though his style is anonymous unto the vanishing point, he's a very efficient filmmaker, and his command of pacing is exemplary: the moments that ought to be quick and peppy are quick and peppy, and the moments that ought to be slow and thoughtful are slow and thoughtful. He doesn't come even close to making the script work. But if it did work, Reiner's direction would work very well to tease out the underlying emotions of the piece.

I think I've posited a lot of things without actually defending any of them, so I guess I should do a bit of that. Here's the thing: the whole film hinges on the way that two men deal with impending death. Fine. Good subject for art. But their illness is used as a plot device: when it matters that they have cancer, they have it, and when it doesn't matter, they don't. I'm going to go ahead and tip my hand, and feel very bad about doing so: it's no secret that three years ago I myself had cancer, and it was just about the least-shitty version of cancer you can have. The mortality rate is around 4% or less. My chemotherapy was pretty close to non-existent (five days in a row every three weeks). And you know what? It was the most unspeakably evil three months of my life. My body felt like it was going to split apart every moment. Is it fair to bring this in to a movie review? I don't know. One tries to be objective, but the fact remains is that I've seen a whole lot of movies since then, and plenty of them have involved cancer, and not a single one of them pissed me off so thoroughly as The Bucket List. These aren't sick old men, they're plot points, and the plot they're put through is arbitrary and unbelievable.