Both the hotly-promoted The Bucket List and the below-the-radar Bubba Ho-Tep feature a pair of geriatric geezers (one white, one black) undertaking adventure in the twilight of their lives in a search to give meaning to what went before. Both films are entertaining, but can the big budget, major studio offering with an A-list cast and a big name director trump a small, independently-made gem based on a Bram Stoker Award-nominated short story? Can Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman best Bruce Campbell and Ossie Davis? Is gallimaufry globetrotting more poignant than fighting giant roaches in Nacogdoches? Will the Hollywood-based screenwriter from NYU’s film school hold his own against the Mojo Storyteller from the Big Thicket in East Texas?
In short, will The Bucket List command as fervent and as loyal a following as Bubba Ho-Tep? Only a good smackdown can begin to answer those questions.
The Bucket List stars two of the biggest, most highly respected actors of our time. Nicholson plays Edward Cole, an enormously wealthy, crotchety cancer patient whose hospital roommate is Carter Chambers (Freeman), a middle-class auto mechanic with a big family, a long marriage and a penchant for watching Jeopardy. He, too, has only six or so months to live. Together they concoct a list of things to do before they kick the bucket, and thanks to Cole’s financial capability the sky’s the limit, literally, as they jet their way to the French Riviera, the Serengeti, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and on to Tibet. AARP would be proud. Yes, it’s a wonderful, albeit abbreviated life they live to the fullest, with a lesson or two being learned along the way. Screenwriter Justin Zackham pitched a terrific premise for Rob Reiner to direct. And Nicholson and Freeman undoubtedly give Lemmon and Matthau a run for their money as the most talented odd couple ever. Clearly The Bucket List seems to have everything in place to make it a box office hit.
The Defending Champion
Bubba Ho-Tep opens with three sentences of voice-over that rank among the most outrageous, audacious and bodacious lines in the history of American cinema. And that’s just the beginning of a wildly imaginative tale concocted by Joe R. Lansdale and adapated to the screen by writer/director Don Coscarelli that proposes Elvis Presley is now a 68-year-old resident of an East Texas nursing home. Of course, no one believes he is the real deal, despite the remarkable resemblance (portrayed brilliantly by Bruce Campbell) and his unrelenting insistence that he swapped lives with an Elvis impersonator so he could escape the hassles of unprecedented fame.
I said no one believes him; that’s not entirely true. One old codger, played by the late, great Ossie Davis, does accept Elvis’ story as true. Then again, this man believes he’s none other than John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his now-black skin is just another example of the Johnson Administration’s evil ingenuity. All this while residents of this nondescript convalescent center are dying at an alarming rate, victims of a soul-sucking Egyptian mummy, who just happens to be in the area thanks to a nearby highway accident. And so the stage is set for the King of Rock and Roll and the King of Camelot must undertake the greatest challenge of their lives. While the mummified soul-sucker’s roaches are no match for a swift bedpan, he’s the real deal as two full body burns will attest.
The Bucket List is surprisingly reminiscent of a Hope-Crosby film replete with some rather cheesy stock footage backgrounds not unlike those from The Road to Zanzibar. Despite various technical glitches, Nicholson and Freeman do an admirable job of keeping viewers entertained in what could have been called The Road to Cremation. That’s star power… but it is star power engulfed in a black hole, thanks to Reiner’s direction of Zackham’s script. It is readily apparent that the screenplay, purportedly written in two weeks, could have used not only more time but more inspiration and another Big Chief Notebook Tablet or two. On the other hand, Bubba Ho-Tep works on every level. It is touching, convincingly acted, and thought-provoking, and it succeeds because it treats its outrageous premise with total sincerity. It is also very well written.
Bucket or Bubba? “Triumph of the human spirit” has become a promotion department’s cliche, but Bubba Ho-Tep deserves that description if anything does. Coscarelli has an uncanny way of making us really care for Lansdale’s cooped-up old coots living their last days in ignominity. Unfortunately, The Bucket List fails to do the same. Ironically, one of the items on the eponymous bucket list is to “witness something truly majestic.” When comparing these two films, it is Bubba Ho-Tep that comes closest to that goal.