There once was an Onion headline along the lines of "Morgan Freeman Narrating Uncontrollably." He does it again here, even from beyond the dead, in a movie where not one emotion nor even some of the backdrops seem the least bit real.

The Bucket List is obvious and clunky, with a triumph-of-the-human-spirit theme that the normally heartfelt and humanistic director Rob Reiner hasn't really tackled before. In films from The Sure Thing (1985) to The American President (1995), he examined the eternally—and wonderfully—youthful hopes, fears and dreams of budding romance that stay true whether you're a college student or the guy in the White House. With A Few Good Men (1992) and Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), he captured average-guy ire at simple injustice. If you want to talk range, go from the magical whimsy of The Princess Bride (1987) to the abnormal psychology of Misery (1990). After a formidable collection like that—not to mention he freaking debuted with a comedy classic, This Is Spinal Tap (1984), and directed the much-liked Stand by Me—maybe it's unfair to expect more from him. Truth to tell, The Story of Us (1999), Alex & Emma (2003) and Rumor Has It... (2005) haven't added to his reputation, and The Bucket List isn't likely to either.

The first theatrically released feature written by NYU grad Justin Zackham, this drama of two old and terminally cancer-stricken men with a list of unfulfilled dreams starts well enough with a clever speak-truth-to-power pairing of autodidact auto mechanic Carter Chambers (Freeman) and arrogant, "plain-talking" billionaire Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) in a semi-private hospital room. Cole heads a ruthless corporation that's buying the joint, and so for PR purposes, as his assistant Thomas (Sean Hayes) reminds him, Cole can't demand a private room since his company's philosophy is two beds in each.

So far, so good, if a bit cloying with the saintly Chambers and his devoted wife (an exemplary Beverly Todd) and three successful grown children (including one played by Freeman's real-life actor son, Alfonso Freeman). Even when it becomes clear the two men are going to take a road trip to try to check the items on Chambers' "Bucket List" (as in "kick the bucket," as will doubtlessly be noted in every mention of this movie), there's still a sense that the actual items will be less important than the relationship and common ground developing between the guys.

That's when it all misfires and becomes something like terminal-illness porn, as billionaire Cole whisks his new buddy around the world in a private jet, and they eat in fine restaurants, race classic cars on a rented track, drive a motorcycle along the Great Wall of China, and inexplicably do a product placement for Chock Full o'Nuts coffee, complete with the words to the jingle. How jolly. We should all be dying and have a billionaire friend.

And that's the problem. Even the easy economics of this scenario might have worked if the story had gone somewhere unexpected, but everything's predictable and pat. Of course the humble mechanic is rich in family, and of course the wealthy mogul has a lifetime of broken marriages and an estranged daughter. That such a simpleminded and clichéd dichotomy could attract such world-class talent, well, doesn't that just kill you?

We do need to point out the distractingly cheap-looking backgrounds. Whether it’s Egypt or the Riviera, they often look like still-photo flats, with unmoving clouds and freeze-frame ripples on the ocean. And from the Taj Mahal to the Himalayas, a lot of the locales look like videogame graphics, which is odd given there are countless stock shots they could have used.