A film review by Craig J. Koban September 19, 2015

A WALK IN THE WOODS jj
½   

2015, R, 104 mins.

 

Robert Redford as Bill Bryson  /  Nick Nolte as Katz  /  Emma Thompson as Catherine Bryson  /  Nick Offerman as REI Dave  /  Kristen Schaal as Mary Ellen

Directed by Ken Kwapis  /  Written by Bill Holderman and Rick Kerb, based on the book by Bill Bryson

A WALK IN THE WOODS is harmless and inconsequential fun, made all the more enjoyable – despite its many faults – by the sheer pleasures of seeing stars and industry veterans Robert Redford and Nick Nolte play off of each other for a couple of hours.  

On a level of memorable fact-based man versus nature flicks, A WALK IN THE WOODS pales in comparison to finer examples of the genre, like last year’s WILD with Reese Witherspoon or ALL IS LOST with Redford himself; it simply feels far too pedestrian and safe with the underlining material for its own good.  Yet, it's the infectious camaraderie and good will that the film’s stars bring in abundance to the table that makes A WALK IN THE WOODS modestly engaging throughout.  Beyond that, it just doesn’t have very much to say about its subject matter. 

Based on the 1998 travel book A WALK IN THE WOODS: REDISCOVERING AMERICA ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL by Bill Bryson, the film tries to harness the good natured humor and trail and ecological history of its source material while relaying the odd couple dynamic between Bryson and his trail-mate, Stephen Katz.  One rather large distraction in the film, though, is the ages of both Redford and Nolte, who portray Bryson and Katz respectively.  Redford is a ripe old 79-years-old, whereas Katz was 33 years his junior in the book when he took on the monumental task of making the massive trek across the Appalachian trail.  This subverts some of the credibility of the film in general, specifically on the level that it’s frankly hard to believe that two old geezers that are closing in on retirement home age would be physically up to the task.  Granted, Redford wanted to film Bryson’s book decades ago with Paul Newman, which makes for a tantalizingly superb what-if movie scenario.  Shooting A WALK IN THE WOODS now – approaching his 80’s – really strains credulity for Redford and his co-star.  That, and Nolte seriously appears visibly unhealthy throughout the film to the point of eliciting anxiety in viewers.  

 

 

Still, though, Redford and Nolte are an undeniable and infectious hoot together in this film.  Bill (Redford) has been a respected travel writer for decades, but he has hit rock bottom, of sorts, both professionally and personally.  He makes the rounds on TV talk shows to promote compilations of his past great work without having written anything consequential in years.  When he’s not pedaling his past literary wears, Bill’s sense of mortality kicks in when he experiences uneasy feelings about his retirement, not to mention dealing with constant reminders that he only has a few truly healthy and productive years left on the planet.  Much against his good natured wife’s (Emma Thompson) judgment, Bill decides to take on the gargantuan task of trekking across the 2000-plus mile Appalachian Trail to rediscover himself and make connections with subject matter that he once passionately wrote about.  His main problem is that he can’t find a friend to accompany him on his journey (his wife insists that he doesn’t go it alone), but after many failed attempts Bill finds a trek companion in the form of an old semi-estranged friend Stephen (Nolte), an overweight ex-alcoholic that doesn’t look like he could walk more than fifty feet without passing out.  Nevertheless, Bill and Stephen enthusiastically take to the trail and embrace the challenge of their six month nature odyssey ahead of them.  Their hearts are in it, but their bodies have other ideas. 

Oddly enough, Redford’s and Nolte’s senior citizenship status simultaneously both hurts and is kind of embraced by the film.  The screenplay doesn’t disregard it altogether and finds some genuinely amusing beats to comment on and mock the stars for their elderly status.  To be fair, A WALK IN THE WOODS does manage to have some noble minded and worthwhile themes, especially the notion that life doesn’t hit the pause button for anyone, regardless of age.  The message of Bill’s underlining quest is to simply…try…and regardless of obvious obstacles large and small.  Clearly, A WALK IN THE WOODS tackles the weighty issues of the trepidation of getting older and feeling inconsequential, but it handles it with mostly low-key and amusingly tactful touches.  Bill, deep down, realizes the utter futility of his yearning to complete the Appalachian Trail (after all, 2200 miles is impossibly long for anyone to travel on foot, young or old), but it doesn’t stop him from trying, even if he knows that it’s doomed for inevitable failure.  On narrative level, A WALK IN THE WOODS doesn’t necessarily go down the – pardon the pun – preordained paths that I was expecting. 

And again, yes, the film is made eminently watchable because of its star power. Redford and Nolte’s chemistry is effortless and palpable throughout  A WALK IN THE WOODS and it’s quite refreshing to see two actors in the winters of their careers still capable of commanding our enthusiastic attention.  Redford still looks shockingly good for a grandpa on screen, and even though that once handsome mug has withered substantially over the years, he still has the on-screen stature of a legitimate leading man.  Nolte has physically deteriorated far worse that Redford; distractingly obese and with a complexion that ranges from red to purple hued, I was mostly concerned that Notle would drop dead at any given moment in the film.  That’s not to say the increasingly gavel voiced actor doesn’t deliver a sly and engaging performance opposite of Redford.  Nolte still has a manner of imbuing a scene with a quietly stated gravitas, such as one moment when he shares his tough battle with sobriety with Redford during one of the film’s more powerfully understated dramatic scenes.  The authentically rendered give-and-take between these two acting titans gives A WALK IN THE WOODS some much needed soul and pathos. 

Yet, for as many great individual moments like those there exists more that wallow in uncomfortably broad and juvenile gags and verbal sparring.  A WALK IN THE WOODS earns its R-rating for the frequent usages of multiple f-bombs from its characters, which gives it a salty aftertaste.  The film’s potty-mouthed shenanigans are not really the main problem with the film, as director Ken Kwapis (helmer of mediocre films like HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU and LICENSE TO WED) doesn’t really seem confident or equal to the task of elevating this material beyond being a trivial and slightly amusing GRUMPY OLD MEN travelogue picture.  The thought of a Redford directed version of Bryson’s book years ago with Newman really taints this film through and through; that could have been an adaptation that really balanced subversive humor with the themes of the fragility of life while taking on nature with a much more powerful wallop.  Kwapis frames many of the exteriors in A WALK IN THE WOODS with a painterly eye for environmental detail, to be sure, but he never really displays any dramatic ambitions beyond that.  Granted, Redford and Nolte are the main attractions here, and they certainly deliver despite the lackluster material given to them.  They infuse A WALK IN THE WOODS with a idiosyncratic personality, something that lesser actors would have utterly failed at. 

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