Great actors sometimes transcend their material, but Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman can't pull their boots free from the ankle-deep schmaltz of "The Bucket List." In this stillborn comedy, they play terminally ill men chasing their dreams on a round-the-world trip. It's terribly earnest, terribly well-intentioned -- and terrible.

Rob Reiner directs as if he's trying to win a medal for sincerity. He puts a big bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul in front of you and pushes your face in it. How insipid this film looks next to "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," a brave, artful movie about facing infirmity with dignity and humor, or "The Savages," a beautifully acted, emotionally honest comedy that looks aging and death straight in the eye. I wouldn't trade a single frame of either for this 97-minute wallow in crocodile tears.

In what must be a first, the film gives us a "meet cute" in a cancer ward. Hospital tycoon Edward Cole (Nicholson), a friendless Scrooge, is obliged by his own cost-cutting policies to bunk alongside Carter Chambers (Freeman), a philosophical auto mechanic. Cole, humbled by his poor health, forms an unlikely misery-loves-company friendship with his roommate. Chambers assembles a catalog of experiences he'd hoped to have before family duties confined him in the garage: "See something truly majestic," and so forth. The billionaire adds a few unfulfilled wishes of his own ("Kiss the most beautiful girl on earth") and takes his new buddy on a globe-trotting vacation to check off every item on their shared agenda. We're off on a sightseeing excursion where the stars are unconvincingly green-screened into the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China and the Serengeti, while learning Important Life Lessons. Freeman does his standard world-weary nobility thing while Nicholson offers a tamped-down version of Crazy Jack.

Then again, with material like this, what are their options? Justin Zackham's screenplay alternates look-at-me, I'm-being-flippant wisecracks with schematic sentimental schlock. There's scant tension in this odd couple's unlikely friendship, and their meant-to-be-lovable character foibles are like something constructed by following diagrams. Not one scene is open to a viewer's interpretation; each moment is calculated to goose-step us toward hackneyed uplift. Guess what? The most important experiences are the ones you can have right at home.

When the actors give it their all, the hollow material becomes all the harder to swallow. A voiceover informs us with Hallmark card eloquence that one character "died with his eyes closed and his heart open." Zackham worked with his heart on his sleeve, then opened his mouth and put his foot in it. I've seen promotional standees in theater lobbies that have moved me more.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186