Carter Chambers is dying.
Oh, sure, he’s lived a full life. He has a doting wife, three successful children and a hospital wallpapered with get-well cards from the grandkids. But the whole impending mortality thing is still a bit of a bummer. He’s feeling useless and adrift and wishes his doting wife would just leave him alone so he can spend the rest of his life watching Jeopardy in peace. He shouts out the answers at his tiny hospital television—hoping, perhaps, that Alex Trebek will hear him and allow him to participate in a “Daily Double.”
“How long Carter Chambers has to live.” (Buzz!)
“What is ‘six months to a year,’ Alex.”
Hospital roomie Edward Coles also is dying—an irony, considering he’s dying in his very own hospital. He owns a whole chain of them, in fact, and up ’til now Edward operated them like warehouses stocked with bedpans, overworked doctors and terrible pea soup. Oh, and those patient-folks. No-one gets a private room in one of these places, not even the hospital’s fabulously wealthy, cantankerous owner.
But Edward isn’t one to feel sorry for himself. So when he sees Carter scribbling out a “bucket list”—things Carter wanted to do before he died—Edward makes a few additions and pitches it to Carter as a final, globetrotting to-do list, one so stuffed with fun and frivolity that it might leave Paris Hilton winded. Edward says he’ll foot the bill. It’s not like he has any family to shower with gifts. No one who’ll talk with him, anyway. So, this is their last “shot,” Edward tells Carter.
“My shot at what?” Carter carps. “Making a fool of myself?”
“Never too late,” Edward answers.
In the words of former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, “We all will probably die of something sooner or later.” But what should we make of our time before we start pushing proverbial daisies? This question lies at the heart of The Bucket List.
Edward believes that dying people can still have fun, and he sets out to prove it. He gets a tattoo. He forces Carter to go skydiving with him. And the two go on an around-the-world trip to see the earth’s most eye-popping sites. They lunch on the top of one of the Great Pyramids, drive a motorcycle along the Great Wall of China and eat an exquisite dinner at an authentic French restaurant.
All this gusto in the face of impending death is admirable in its own, cash-hemorrhaging way. But there’s a downside to this end-of-life frivolity, which Virginia, Carter’s wife, brings to the forefront. She believes that her husband has “given up” his cancer fight—a war she’d rather he still wage. Where there’s life, there’s hope, she reasons, never mind the prognosis, and the film treats her point of view with respect. She tells Edward that she’s prepared for death to take her husband, “I’m just not prepared to lose him when he’s still alive.”
Carter comes to understand that a life well lived involves more than sightseeing. Sure, he has a great time spending Edward’s money, but he eventually realizes that he’d really just like to get back to his wife and family.
Carter reveals the film’s ethos through an Egyptian myth: When the ancient Egyptians died (Carter says), the gods would be waiting at the gates of heaven to ask them two questions before allowing them to enter. 1) Have you found joy in your life? 2) Has your life brought joy to others? Eventually, even Edward sees that family, friends and bringing joy to other people is the real spice of life—even when that life is just about kaput.
Carter and his wife are people of faith. He says so explicitly, and he participates in a mealtime prayer with his extended family. Virginia leads the prayer, addressing the family’s “dear heavenly Father” and thanking Him for the return of their own husband and father. Later, we see Virginia praying with the family in a hospital waiting room.
Carter knows lots about other religions, too, and he explains Buddhism and reincarnation to Edward. He recounts a story from a person who scaled Mount Everest and describes a spiritual moment the man had on the mountain: During his climb, a profound silence fell around the mountaineer, and he heard the voice of the mountain. “It was like he heard the voice of God,” Carter says. Another Everest climber tells Carter that the stars from Everest look like “little holes in the floor of heaven.” Carter says his pastor once compared human life to streams and rivers which water the land around them, and he encourages Edward to “let the waters take you.”
Edward, meanwhile, thinks faith is a bunch of poppycock. He mocks various religions in general and doubts God specifically. No supreme being is going to save him from his cancer, he reasons, and when Carter points out that 95 percent of the world believes in a creator, Edward answers by saying that, in his experience, 95 percent of people are typically wrong. He’s more comfortable comparing God with the Sugarplum Fairy.
“I’d love to be wrong,” he adds. “If I’m wrong, I win.”
Well, not really. But the bevy of theological assumptions such a statement evokes are too bulky to delve into here. (Scripture has much to say on the subject. Start with Mark 16:16, John 15:4-5, John 7:37-38, John 3:14-16, John 4:14 and Acts 20:21.)
[Spoiler Warning] By the end of the film, Edward reconsiders his beliefs. Or at least he considers reconsidering. Giving Carter’s eulogy in a packed church, Edward says that, if there is an afterlife, he hopes “Carter’s there to vouch for me and show me the ropes on the other side.”
When the film opens, Carter’s not sure how he feels about Virginia anymore, and he admits to Edward that he’s never “been” with another woman. So Edward prods Carter to put having an affair on the list, and he suggests they should both participate in wild orgies. Carter refuses. And he puts action to words when he declines the advances of an attractive woman in Hong Kong.
Returning to his wife, he reminisces with her about their teenage sex lives—when they couldn’t keep their hands off each other. While doing so, she primps herself in preparation for another run at marital intimacy.
As it turns out, Edward hired the Hong Kong woman to proposition Carter—but whether he hired her to push him into infidelity or back toward his wife is never completely clear.
Edward says he’s been married four times and, when Carter asks him how he’s going to kiss the “most beautiful woman in the world” (one of the items on Edward’s bucket list), Edward says it’s all about “volume.” We see him and a beautiful woman exit a bathroom, with the woman buttoning her blouse as she leaves. He tells his assistant in passing that, at his age, he should never “waste” arousal.
Edward falls off a gurney and onto a hospital floor. During a muscle-car race, Carter sideswipes Edward a time or two. As for nonviolent gore, we see the top pop off Carter’s chest catheter. The result is a bloodstained dress shirt.
Edward says the f-word once and also makes an obscene gesture. Characters use the s-word more than 10 times. God’s name is misused a dozen times, including several instances in which it’s paired with “d–n.” Jesus’ name also is abused a half-dozen times or so. Milder profanities “h—” and “a–” creep into the script with some regularity.
We see Carter smoking a cigarette. He lets it drop from his mouth after receiving a depressing, health-related phone call—suggesting that his smoking habit brought on his cancer. He and Edward sip champagne. The Hong Kong woman orders a glass of wine.
As entertainment, The Bucket List showcases some of the messy realities of cancer and its treatment. Edward suffers through a brutal round of chemo, and we see him grimacing in pain, shivering and crouched over a toilet to vomit. (We hear retching noises.) “Somewhere, some lucky guy’s having a heart attack,” he says. Edward and Carter discuss suicide.
Edward apparently helped break up a relationship between his daughter and her abusive husband—by use of nefarious, possibly illegal, means. Both main characters make references to critical male body parts and bodily functions.
[Spoiler Warning] When Edward’s ashes are deposited in the Himalayas next to Carter’s, Carter’s voice intones that Edward would’ve loved being buried up there because it was “against the law.”
The Bucket List is being billed as a “feel-good” comedy—a little odd, considering it revolves around two terminally ill gaffers trying to squeeze the last bit o’ juice from life before they, um, croak. Comedian Gilda Radner, who died from cancer in 1989, once said the disease was “the most unfunny thing in the world.” But director Rob Reiner now begs to differ.
If you overlook the language and raunch-factor—a sizable order—The Bucket List has a nominally uplifting message: Family, friends and even faith are, at the literal end, more worthwhile than all the money in the world.
But equivocation may spoil the spectacle. While the film pushes audiences to ponder the importance of their own lifelong decisions, it refuses to make a dicey decision of its own: When the pencil of life has been sharpened to the nub, how are you going to use it? For yourself or for others?
The Bucket List suggests Carter’s been living his life for others for the last 45 years or so. He dropped out of college and took a job as an auto mechanic to make ends meet for his family. He’s worked like crazy to make sure his children have all the advantages they could ask for. Etcetera. Now, with months left to live, he wonders whether he deserves some “me” time. He doesn’t want his remaining days spent “smothered in pity and grief,” according to Edward, and comforting those people who, Carter feels, should be comforting him.
So, for a time, he leaves his wife to gallivant around the globe with his new best friend. And the story suggests that’s a good thing. After all, Carter rekindles his love for his wife on the trip, and Virginia later admits to Edward that Carter “left a stranger and came back my husband.” Through his extended vacation, Carter realizes what’s really important to him. So all that’s cool, right?
Well, you know that old saying that goes, “Two wrongs don’t make a right”? A right and a wrong don’t make a right, either. It’s still basically selfish of Carter to abandon his wife. And it doesn’t much matter what he’s done with his life up till then, or how close to the grave he may or may not be. Jesus never tells us to start living selfishly when we arrive on death’s door.
Make no mistake, there’s nothing un-Christian about enjoying life. John 10:10 tells us that Jesus came to give us life “to the full.” We are to relish the gifts that surround us and the opportunities we’re given, and we shouldn’t condemn Carter for having fun. But we can knock him around a bit in the literary sense for leaving his grieving wife—even temporarily—to do so.
Jesus tells us, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Or, by taking that old Egyptian proverb and tweaking it a bit, we can think of it this way: God is far more concerned about whether we’ve brought joy to Him (and others) than gathered it in for ourselves.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.