A WALK IN THE WOODS (2015) review
written by: Rick Kern and Bill Holderman
produced by: Robert Redford, Bill directed by: Ken Kwapis
rating: R (for language and some sexual references)
runtime: 104 min.
U.S. release date: January 23, 2015 (Sundance) & September 2, 2015 (limited release)
“A Walk in the Woods” was to be Robert Redford and Paul Newman’s third and last film together. By the time the celebrated 1998 memoir by Bill Bryson, which chronicled his months spent hiking the Appalachian Trail with his grizzled pal Steve Katz was greenlit, Newman had died but Redford carried on (as star and co-producer), adding Nick Nolte to the trail mix. The result is an adaptation that expectedly deviates from the source material, relies too heavily on broad comedy and forced geriatric reflections, yet offers that rare film you can take your parents or grandparents to. It’s light and breezy and of course picturesque and is easy to enjoyable for the most part.
The first couple of minutes sets the humor, as we watch writer Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) endure an over-excited British interviewer (Randall Newsome), barely in tune with how uncomfortable Bryson is, respond to inane questions about retiring and comments about old age. Then we see Bill attend the funeral of a friend with his loving wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson, 23 years younger than Redford), where he awkwardly tells a widow (Sandra Ellis Lafferty) he’s glad he could attend, later commenting to his wife, “I don’t like talking to people”. It becomes obvious Bill is that travel writer who’s most at ease either abroad or writing about his travels in quiet solitude, not in a house bustling with his grandkids.
When he takes a walk near his New Hampshire home, Bill gets the crazy idea to hike the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trial (or AT, as we find it is affectionately called), which runs through fourteen states, from Georgia all the way to Maine. Why? It just feels like something he has to do. A challenge to himself to see if he can still physically and mentally test himself, instead of just sitting around like his peers waiting for a new diagnosis or better yet: death.
Naturally, his concerned wife is opposed to the idea, pointing him to articles of bear attacks and decomposed bodies along the famous trail. Knowing that she’ll feel better if he takes a partner with him, Bill accepts the company of philanderer Steve Katz (Nick Nolte), an estranged friend from Iowa who’s eager to tag along and escape his wasted life. Despite the two men taking totally different paths since their globe-trotting cavorting days decades ago, Bill pairs with the grossly out-of-shape Steve and the two fly to Georgia to begin their journey. Like modern-day pioneers (albeit inept ones), the bumbling duo embark on an adventure that will test them in every way as they brave the majestic elements they are in awe of and unprepared for as well as each other’s company.
Like every travelogue movie, “A Walk in the Woods” is sprinkled with characters that our protagonists meet along the way. Most of them are woman, save for the all-knowing REI guy (Nick Offerman, playing an amalgam of Grumpy Cat/Ron Swanson) Bill’s son introduces him to. As expected in a movie about two old dudes though, the woman are inconsequential, yet at least offer some variety to the film. The first female the guys encounter is the arrogant all-knowing Mary Ellen (a fitting Kristen Schaal), a thirtysomething chatterbox who can only hike alone because she hasn’t found anyone as great as herself. She’s a character that exists solely to bug the two old guys and her annoyance is kind of overwritten. There’s a plump flirt named Beulah (Susan McPhall) who Katz meets at a laundromat, who asks for help with her jumbo panties. It’s funny because she’s fat and it involves huge granny undies – I guess, I don’t know. That whole bit turns into eye-rolling ridiculousness. The last woman the duo meet is Jeannie (Mary Steenburgen, who floats in and out of scenes with her sublime smile), the proprietor of a motel they stay at along the way. She’s a character that adds very little to the story, except lock eyes with Redford and ask him if “there’s anything else” he needs after handing a robed Bill clean towels. There’s no depth to any of these female characters, no subtleties or nuances. They’re all at the service of these two traveling companions and nothing else.
The folks I know who’ve read Bryson’s book of the same name seem to have read it more than once. I gather that’s because it’s an enjoyable read, not a challenging one. I’m told it has a self-deprecating/humorous look at life, nature and, of course, the interaction between the writer and his burly cohort. Translation: A light and breezy read. That’s pretty much what this adaptation provides, with some deviations. I don’t always mention the differences between a film adaptation and its source (because I usually don’t think it matters), but when I found out that the Bill and Steve of the book were both 44 years old, it got me thinking how that would’ve been a preferable big-screen translation.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Redford and Nolte (although Nolte’s character is a bit too buffoonish from the get-go and rarely lets up), it’s just that we’ve seen buddy movies with two curmudgeonly old pals before. Two middle-aged guys though, away from the rat race and reaccessing their lives amid a precarious nature trail – that could possibly provide some interesting mid-life crisis material. Maybe that’s just me though, because that’s where I’m at in life, but I still feel casting a fit 79 year-old Redford and a bloated 74 year-old Nolte feels way too familiar.
But, like any movie, it all depends on the script and unfortunately this one by newcomer Rick Kern and longtime Redford screenwriter Bill Holderman feels like something an 80 year-old Adam Sandler would write. What we get primarily from Nolte’s character is a shallow immaturity with a perverse misogynistic view of women. For whatever reason (by now you can surmise I haven’t read the book), the writers felt the need to “bring the funny” instead of just let the humor surface through situations and responses. Not a chance here. Some of the lines and comedic sequences feel so broad, it felt at times like Redford turned into Bugs Bunny and Nolte into Elmer Fudd with his guttural, raspy line-readings resembling the Tazmanian Devil. There literally were times where I couldn’t understand a word coming out of Nolte’s mouth.
Director Ken Kwapis (“The Big Miracle” and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”) makes the most of the beautiful scenery of the Appalachian Trail, like McAfee Knob, the spot you see on the poster. He also feels the need to give us extreme close-ups of Nolte’s pink mug for some reason. Beyond that, nothing about the director stood out. At one point, Richard Linklater was attached to direct. I would’ve liked to see that movie.
I was hoping a story like this would provide more introspection between the two main characters. Discussions about mistakes and failures they’ve made in life as well as successes and things they’re grateful for in life. There’s some of that, but there deserved to be more. I wasn’t expecting “Wild“, but maybe what I wanted was a septuagenarian “Stand By Me” where two old goats seek out adventure and unexpectedly grow-up a little in the process.