I saw the movie The Bucket List last week with a friend. We were celebrating his 50th birthday that very day. To say the least, he was conflicted about the auspiciousness of the occasion. To add to his trepidation, The Bucket List, starring the venerable Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, was more of a slice of (end of) life drama than the comedy it seemed to be advertised as. There are many moments of philosophical wrangling between and within the two main characters, both of whom had been treated for cancer. They fly around the world to places of unmistakable significance. Their motorcycling over The Great Wall of China, wandering the Taj Mahal, and sitting atop a pyramid gives them ample opportunity to balance that place’s relative permanence with talk of the afterlife and the great but transitory nature of even profound love.
So as The Bucket List enters its 5th week of release, and grosses in excess of $44 million, I can’t help but wonder whether Americans are laying down their cash under false pretenses, believing it to be a comedy, or are intrigued with the newest in a long line of movies that deal squarely with the topic of dying and how we spend our time before we do so (sound familiar?)? To be sure, contemporary Americans take pride in a few of the labels that describe their place in the global community. The world’s only military superpower. The world’s most prosperous nation. But, after having clocked 231 years as a self-governing nation, we are also among the youngest nations on earth. Given that, I suggest that we display a collective maturity best compared to that of a teenager. Consider how we love to fight. We love to get drunk and high. To even the most informed citizen, our government’s money management skills seem questionable, maybe indefensible. This estimate of our nation’s maturity level is further supported by how averse Americans are to discussing or planning for their own deaths, as collectively we feel as invulnerable as a teen. We are squeamish to write our wills, uncomfortable around graveyards, and change conversations away from the subject of death and dying. So how do movies like The Bucket List, Leaving Las Vegas, Terms of Endearment, and others, occasionally break through Americans’ reluctance to grapple with the issues around their own mortality? Perhaps each movie’s marketing team has been particularly triumphant, packaging each to lure us in for a laugh before lowering the boom. Perhaps each has been released on the cusp of some cultural uncertainty. For The Bucket List, the doomsayers’ recent predictions for the U.S. economy and the future of the dollar would provide that uncertainty. Or perhaps the success of The Bucket List signals more individual acceptance by Americans about their individual fates and, by extension, the fate of the United States as the beautiful and fresh exemplar of justice and freedom unless it plays out and plans for all the possibilities of its own demise.