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End-of-life movie review: The Bucket List

Posted by Karen M. Wyatt on March 23, 2012 at 7:00 AM


This delightful 2007 movie directed by Rob Reiner and written by Justin Zackham focuses on the joy of living fully during one’s last days instead of on the tragic aspects of dying. The story centers around two main characters, Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) and Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) who are both older men suffering with lung cancer and hospitalized in the same room for treatment.


Though they are dealing with a similar illness and course of treatment, these two men are strikingly different: Carter is a family man who works as a mechanic at an auto body shop, but is well-read and thoughtful, having once aspired to be a history teacher. Edward is a billionaire who made money by buying up public hospitals, has been married four times and demands the finer things of life from his personal assistant Thomas. Despite their differences, the two men become friends as they support one another through the ordeal of chemotherapy and its subsequent side effects.


When Carter and Edward each learn on the same day that they may have only one year left to live, they strike up a conversation about “The Bucket List,” which was a suggestion of one of Carter’s professors that each person should have a list of the things he/she wants to do before “kicking the bucket.” While Carter’s list is rather modest and thoughtful, with items such as “Laugh until I cry” and “Witness something majestic” Edward contributes his own wishes to go skydiving, kiss the most beautiful girl in the world and travel to exotic places.


With Edward offering to foot the bill, the two men set off together on a journey to fulfill the Bucket List before they die. While experiencing adventures such as skydiving, driving racecars and traveling to France, Egypt, Africa, India and China the two men discuss their philosophies of life and their thoughts of death.


Eventually they end up returning home when Carter realizes that what really matters to him is being with his loving family. But his time is cut short when he is diagnosed with a metastatic tumor in his brain and dies during surgery. Edward lives on, with his cancer in remission, to complete the remaining items on the Bucket List.


The Bucket List has a message of hope even though the final outcome is death for Carter, the narrator. The theme of the movie is revealed when Carter states that the Ancient Egyptians believed that each person had to answer two questions in order to get into heaven: Have you found joy in life? Has your life brought joy to others? Through the unfolding of the story we witness Carter learning to find joy for himself while Edward discovers the importance of bringing joy to others.


Death’s impact is minimized in The Bucket List so it’s not a typical end-of-life movie. But it portrays an exuberance and thirst for life and everything that it has to offer that is inspiring and touching, as well. Watch The Bucket List to remember how to live and even though the movie won’t teach you exactly what it means to die, you will have learned how to make the most of every moment of life right up until the last breath.

Categories: Movie Review, End-of-Life, Death & Dying

Copyright ©2010 Karen Wyatt, MD

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