“A Walk in the Woods”
“A Walk in the Woods” starts out with Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) being interviewed on a morning TV show. The host delights in grilling Bryson about why he isn’t writing anymore and why he has never written about the United States. Bryson, an award-winning best-selling travel humorist, beings to pondering on the idea that after spending so much time abroad that he has lost touch with America. Bill and his wife come back from attending a funeral of a friend, something he has to do more and more and decides to take a walk. On his walk, he stumbles across The Appalachian Trail, the legendary hiking trail that is 2,200 miles long, stretching from Georgia to Maine. It gives him the idea that he should walk the whole trail.
Bill is the only one in his family that thinks he can do it. His son thinks he’s nuts and his wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson), thinks it’s a suicide mission. She is convinced it’s madness to even think about making the trip and starts leaving Bill printed out articles dealing with people who have died on the trail. The only way that Catherine agrees to the trip is if Bill can find someone to walk the trail with him.
Bill starts calling just about everyone he knows, and all react with the same refrain; that Bill is nuts to attempt such a feat at his age. Bill thinks all is lost when out of the blue; he gets a phone call from someone he hasn’t talked to in 20-plus years, an old traveling buddy named Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte). Katz has gotten word that Bill has been calling around and wants to reunite for one last adventure. Bill reluctantly agrees, knowing that Katz is his only hope of going. Now the question is; will this mismatched pair not only survive one of the toughest hikes a person can take, but will they survive each other’s company?
Robert Redford has been trying to make this film based on Bryson’s book of the same name since the late 90s. He initially wanted to star with Paul Newman in the Katz role. While that would have been fun to watch, the pairing of Redford and Nolte in a movie based on a beloved and hilarious book should have been a hit out of the park. Unfortunately, I think the script has been rewritten so many times that the final product, by screenwriters Bill Holderman and Rick Kerb, feels very flat and stale. The film never really gives Redford and Nolte much to work with. Their two characters are supposed to be out of touch with each other’s lifestyle, thereby creating tension on the screen. Instead, we get the idea that both men, especially Nolte’s character, are just tired and cranky.
The film has an outstanding supporting cast, but very few are asked to do more than just being plot devices. The film wastes the talents of Nick Offerman, who plays an REI employee who gleefully sells Bill his equipment for the trip. You keep waiting for Offerman to be funny, but the scene never really develops into anything other than a way to show Redford’s character being surly and flippant. Emma Thompson’s character does nothing more than reacting to her husband’s attempts at jokes. Mary Steenburgen, who plays the owner of a motel along the trail, seems to have been put in the movie just to show that women still find Redford charming and attractive. The only actor who is given anything substantial to do is Kristen Schael, who plays a fellow hiker who has a non-stop opinion on everything and isn’t afraid to tell you exactly what she thinks. She is brilliant in the scenes and completely outshines the Redford and Nolte, bringing a brief breath of comedic timing to the film. Unfortunately, Schael is only with Nolte and Redford on the screen for a couple of scenes, and how they get rid of her character in the storyline is a poorly handled attempt at humor.
I know that Robert Redford can handle comedy. His past efforts in such classic films as “Barefoot in the Park,” or the little-seen “The Hot Rock” show that he has the touch for it. Redford in this movie seems to never know quite how to deliver his line, almost as he doesn’t know which lines are dramatic and, which are comedic. Nolte tries his best to rescue this film, but while he is a blast to watch, I never felt that he was working too hard in the part. It was more Nick Nolte playing a version of Nolte up there on the screen than the part of Katz.
This film will be compared to recent hiking films such as “Wild,” “Tracks,” and “The Way” but this movie pales in comparison to those films. Unlike those films, this movie has no heart; its script’s pacing is slow, much like the two main characters hiking, and its attempt at humor never quite hits the mark. While the +50 age crowd may have an enjoyable time watching the two old master actors stumble about on the screen, I think the rest of us and especially fans of the book will not want to go on this trip. My Rating: Cable
My movie rating system from Best to Worst: 1). I Would Pay to See it Again 2). Full Price 3). Bargain Matinee 4). Cable 5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again
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