Go take a hike: Redford, Nolte lead us on pleasant enough Walk
A Walk in the Woods, based on Bill Bryson’s popular 1998 memoir of attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail, is inevitably going to be compared to Wild, last year’s film of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, on the opposite side of the country. Aside from similar plots, though, the two films have little in common; Wild is the better picture by far, but A Walk in the Woods holds its own as a sort of lightweight, droll counterpart. What Wild did for solo women hikers on the PCT, A Walk in the Woods might do for the grandfather set on the AT.
Directed by Ken Kwapis, an Emmy-nominated television director, A Walk in the Woods has the sort of affable, breezy humor found in Kwapis-directed sitcoms like The Office and Malcolm in the Middle. Robert Redford plays writer and academic (and yes, grandfather) Bill Bryson, and Nick Nolte plays Stephen Katz, the marginally employed, out of shape, recovering alcoholic who joins Bryson on what some might consider a doomed trek to complete the 2,000 mile trail through that runs from Georgia to Maine. The two men are woefully unprepared for the rigors of the trail, and so we get an entertaining, if somewhat predictable, picaresque, as Bryson and Katz face friends and foes, both animal and human, on and off the trail.
As played by Redford and Nolte, Bryson and Katz are a study in contrasts; in real life, Nolte is five years younger than Redford, but here, Nolte looks about ten years older. Heavy, wheezing, and ruddy, Nolte looks so unhealthy here that you actually worry about the actor’s physical well-being, and hope that most of his performance is just acting. Redford, by contrast, is thin, fit, and with his piercing blue eyes and tousled blonde hair, still bears a pretty solid resemblance to the golden boy matinee idol he was back when he romanced Barbra Streisand over 40 years ago in The Way We Were.
But these two actors do have terrific chemistry; they previously starred in the excellent 2012 Weather Underground drama The Company You Keep, and you can tell the two have a genuine rapport as performers and as friends, which works well for their roles here. And although there isn’t a shortage of heavy-handed metaphors (e.g., lectures about galaxies and stars and dying chestnut trees), the script, by first time screen-writers Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, gives both actors some very smart, funny lines, which they deliver with brilliantly dry humor, resulting in fair amount of genuine laugh-out-loud moments for the audience.
Where Wild succeeds, and where this picture errs, though, is in the character motivation. In Wild, we knew that Cheryl was hiking the PCT to temper her grief and exorcise a host of demons and bad decisions; but here, the film never makes clear exactly why Bryson has undertaken his quest. Katz tells us outright that he’s along to reconnect with his old friend, but, even when he directly asks Bryson – more than once – why Bryson wants to do the hike, Bryson can’t answer. There are some implications about growing old and seizing the day in the face of dying and ill friends, and there is a vague Thoreau-esque, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” feel (Bryson actually quotes John Muir at one point), but, for the most part, we never really see or feel the restlessness and dissatisfaction that may have lead Bryson to the trail. The writers simply put him on the trail so he and Katz can have adventures, and that plot mechanism is glaringly obvious.
But that’s not to say the adventures we watch aren’t funny. Kristen Schaal nearly steals the picture as a self-absorbed, insufferable fellow hiker, and the duo’s interactions with her are some of the best scenes in the movie. And Katz has an encounter with a married woman in a laundromat that leads to a particularly comic escapade that works very well, in spite of its slapstick nature.
The only missteps in casting are in the other minor roles; Oscar winner Emma Thompson is wasted as Catherine, Bryson’s worry-wart wife, who is given little to do besides fret and print Internet articles about trail dangers for Bryson to read. And comedian Nick Offerman is on screen for maybe two minutes tops, playing an REI salesman, in what is perhaps the most blatant advertisement-within-a-film ever seen on screen (and, just in case we don’t get the “SHOP REI!” message loud and clear from that scene, we get several center-screen pans later to the REI logo on the hikers’ tents).
In between the comic set pieces, we do get some serious reflections on growing older and the nature of long friendships. In fact, the film works best as a meditation on male friendships; Nolte and Redford do have some thoughtful, very well-acted scenes in which they discuss people and places from their past, and their wistful ruminations about life choices and roads not taken are made even more compelling simply by being voiced by these two veteran, consummate actors. Set against breathtaking scenery (cinematographer John Bailey captures some truly stunning vistas along the trail), the philosophical musings and comedic moments alike are at least always lovely to watch. If we’re going to take a walk in the woods, we could do worse than follow this team.
A Walk in the Woods opens today at Bay Area theaters.