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“The Bucket List”: not the obvious message

Updated: Oct 10, 2022

The other night, The Long Suffering Mr B and I watched “The Bucket List”, starring the legends that are Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. It was perfect long weekend viewing: a little schmaltzy, pretty funny, quite emotional and not too taxing. Not what I’d call a classic, but good entertainment – I mean, how could anything with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman not be worth watching on some level?!

However, idly googling a few reviews, I was a bit surprised to find that they present it as a straightforward story of Carter (Freeman) saving Edward (Nicholson) and dismiss it as predictable and corny.

To set the scene…

Carter is a humble mechanic.

Edward is an arrogant rich man.

Carter is decent and wise, a loving family man.

Edward is unscrupulous and superficial, trailing a string of failed relationships behind him (including with his only child).

So, it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen, right? Carter will be Edward’s saviour.

As the film progresses, Carter’s innate wisdom becomes increasingly apparent and Edward starts to display a previously well-hidden vulnerability and decency. Natural conclusion: Carter has rescued Edward. And this view is encouraged by the casting – I mean, who the hell expects Jack Nicholson to shed a moral light on anything?!

So, case closed…or is it? Well, I wouldn’t be writing this if I thought it was, would I?!?!

Towards the end of the film, in a letter to Edward, Carter writes “Virginia says that I left a stranger and came back a husband; I owe that to you.” It’s easy to gloss over this, because it doesn’t fit with our expectations.

And it’s not just that one line that suggests that the moral of the story might not be what it first seems.

Edward is presented as a stereotypically obnoxious millionaire. But he (eventually!) has the integrity not to insist on breaking his own “two people to a room” policy. He is horribly rude to his assistant Thomas, but clearly delights in Thomas’ equally as rude responses. When he’s given the news of his imminent death, his only request to the doctor is to chase up the results Carter has been waiting for. He offers to spend a small fortune on helping a man he barely knows fulfil his dying wishes and, even when they argue during the trip, he doesn’t remind him who is holding the purse strings.

Carter is a decent, hard-working, very intelligent man, who has dedicated himself to supporting his family. But the interaction between Edward and his assistant has more warmth and connection than that between Carter and his wife at the start of the film – she is distraught, but he seems unable to offer comfort. He loves and is proud of his family, yet there is a sense of him being a little shut off, caught up in regrets of the academic career he had to give up…in some ways a disappointed man in spite of having what most of us consider to be the most important things in life. When offered the opportunity to spend a significant chunk of the last months of his life on an all-expenses-paid international jolly on a private jet, he abandons his wife and children with barely a backward glance.

Seems to me that Carter started off the film just as flawed and unhappy as Edward.

So am I saying that it was Edward who saved Carter?

Erm, nope.

You see, I don’t think anyone saves anyone else. If there is any saving to be done, we can only do it for ourselves.

But I think that other people – not always intentionally, and not necessarily in a positive way! – play a big part in helping us understand ourselves and what matters to us, either through their wisdom or the experiences they create for us.

The message I took from “The Bucket List” - and why it's been playing on my mind for the last few days, I think - is that meeting someone who helps us see ourselves, our lives and the world differently is a true gift.

This has made me realise how much I owe to all the people in my life who have given me the gift of different perspectives and new ideas, whose wisdom helps me to continue to learn and grow.

Mind you, it would be even better if one or two of them had a private jet and the funds (and the inclination!) to take me on an international jolly...🤣

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