The film premiered on December 15, 2007 in Hollywood. It opened in limited release in the United States and Canada on December 25, 2007 and was distributed by Warner Bros. The film opened in wide release in the United States and Canada on January 11, 2008 and was released in the United Kingdom on February 8, 2008, and in Australia on February 21, 2008. It received mixed reviews from film critics, but was a box office success, opening at the top of the box office and grossing a total of $175.4 million worldwide.
Two 70-year-old men, blue-collar mechanic Carter Chambers (Freeman) and billionaire hospital magnate Edward Cole (Nicholson) meet for the first time in the hospital after both have been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Although Edward is reluctant to share a room with Carter, complaining that he "looks half-dead already", they become friends as they undergo their respective treatments.
Carter is a gifted amateur historian and family man who had wanted to become a history professor in his youth, had been "black, broke, [and with a] baby on the way" and, thus, never rose above his status as a mechanic at the McCreath body shop. Carter loves sharing his knowledge and his favorite show is Jeopardy!. Edward is a four-time divorced health-care tycoon and cultured loner who enjoys nothing more than tormenting his personal valet/servant, Thomas (Hayes), who later reveals his name is actually Matthew. Edward prefers to call him Thomas because he finds the name Matthew "too biblical". Edward enjoys drinking Kopi Luwak, one of the most expensive coffees in the world.
During their time in the ward, both Carter and Edward seem to find common ground as they have intellectual personalities. Carter begins writing a "bucket list", or things to do before he "kicks the bucket". After hearing he has less than a year, Carter discards the list. Edward finds it the next morning and urges Carter to do everything on the list (and adds more things to do), and offers to finance the trip for both of them. Carter agrees and despite the protests of his wife, Virginia (Todd), Edward and Carter begin their around-the-world vacation. They go skydiving together, drive a Shelby Mustang, fly over the North Pole, eat dinner at Chevre d'or in France, visit and praise the beauty and history of Taj Mahal, India, ride motorcycles on the Great Wall of China, attend a lion safari in Tanzania and visit the base of Mt. Everest in Nepal (which was unfortunately shrouded in cloud).
Atop the Great Pyramid, looking out over the pyramids of Khafre and Menkaure, they confide about faith and family, revealing that Carter has long been feeling less in love with his wife and that Edward is deeply hurt by his estrangement from his only daughter, who disowned him after he drove away her abusive husband. In Hong Kong, Edward hires a prostitute named Angelica (King) for Carter, who has never been with any woman but his wife. Carter declines and realizing that he loves his wife, asks to return home.
On the drive back, Carter reciprocates by trying to reunite Edward with his daughter. Believing it as a breach of trust, Edward angrily storms off. Carter returns home to his wife, children and grandchildren where they have a nice family dinner telling stories and sharing jokes while a frustrated Edward stays home eating frozen dinners alone. However,the family reunion is short-lived: while preparing for a romantic interlude, Carter suffers a seizure and is rushed to the hospital, with the cancer having spread to his brain.
Edward, who is now in remission, visits him and they share a few moments, wherein Carter reveals with great amusement how Edward's Kopi Luwak coffee is grown in Sumatra and then fed to and defecated by a jungle cat before being harvested because of the special aroma of the gastric juices. Carter crosses off "laugh till I cry" from his bucket list and insists Edward finish the list without him. Carter goes into surgery, but the procedure is unsuccessful and he dies on the operating table.
As news of Carter's death is given to his wife and family, Edward finally attempts to reconcile with his daughter. She accepts him back into her life and introduces him to the granddaughter he never knew he had. After greeting the little girl with a kiss on the cheek, Edward crosses "kiss the most beautiful girl in the world" off the list. Edward delivers a eulogy at the funeral, explaining that he and Carter had been complete strangers, but the last three months of Carter's life were the best three months of his life. He crosses off "help a complete stranger for the good" from the list.
The epilogue reveals that Edward lived until age 81 and his ashes were then taken to the summit of an unnamed peak in the Himalayas by his assistant Matthew. As Matthew places a Chock full o'Nuts coffee can alongside another can, he crosses off the last item on the bucket list ("witness something truly majestic") and places it between the cans. Carter's narration reveals the two cans contain their ashes and that Edward would have loved this, because he was "buried on the mountain and that was against the law".
The Bucket List received mixed reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 41%, based on 167 reviews, with an average rating of 5.1/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Not even the earnest performances of the two leads can rescue The Bucket List from its schmaltzy script". Metacritic gave the film a score of 42 out of 100, based on 34 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Roger Ebert, who had thyroid cancer, criticized the film's portrayal of cancer sufferers, writing in his one-star review that The Bucket List "...thinks dying of cancer is a laff riot followed by a dime-store epiphany."
The film opened in wide release in the United States and Canada on January 11, 2008 and grossed $19,392,416 from 2,911 theaters, averaging $6,662 per theater and ranking #1 at the box office. The film closed on June 5, 2008, never having a weekend-to-weekend decline of more than 40%, and ended up with a final gross of $93,466,502 in the United States and Canada and another $81,906,000 overseas, for a total gross of $175,372,502 worldwide, easily recouping the film's considerable $45 million budget and turning a sizable profit for Warner Bros..
Named one of the Top Ten Films of the Year by the National Board of Review.
A score album from Varèse Sarabande was released on January 15, 2008, featuring composer Marc Shaiman's original score for the film as well as a selection of newly recorded themes from Shaiman's previous scoring projects, including City Slickers, Simon Birch, The Addams Family, Mother, North, Sleepless in Seattle, South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut, Mr. Saturday Night, and Stuart Saves His Family. It also features a rearranged version of the James Bond theme "Goldfinger" (titled "Printmaster"), with Shaiman's own voice and lyrics in which he spoofs the industry's habit of tracking music in scenes where they don't belong.
The full list of 23 tracks is as follows:
- Hospital Hallway (from the movie)
- Like Smoke through a Keyhole (from the movie)
- Best in L.A. (from the movie)
- Really Bad News (from the movie)
- Milord – Édith Piaf (from the movie)
- Hotel Source (from the movie)
- Did You Hear It? (from the movie)
- Flying Home (from the movie)
- Homecomings (from the movie)
- Life and Death (from the movie)
- The Mountain (from the movie)
- End Credits (from the movie)
- Theme from The American President ("A Seed of Grain")
- Theme from City Slickers
- Theme from Simon Birch
- Theme from The Addams Family
- Theme from Mother
- Theme from North
- Sleepless in Seattle / A Wink and a Smile"
- South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut/"Blame Canada"
- Theme from Mr. Saturday Night
- "Printmaster" (After John Barry's "Goldfinger")
- Theme from Stuart Saves His Family ("What Makes a Family")
The theme song, John Mayer's "Say," is not included on the Bucket List soundtrack, but included on the re-release of Mayer's third album Continuum.
The film was released on DVD and Blu-ray disc June 10, 2008.