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Nolte, Redford stray off-trail in 'A Walk in the Woods'

A Walk in the Woods; 98 min; Rated R

“A Walk in the Woods” has a number of problems, all of which conspire to make the film less than it could have been.

First, regarding the screenwriters, the challenge is to put some zip into what is essentially a long hike. Once the two central characters — Robert Redford as Bill Bryson and his long-ago friend, Stephen Katz, played by Nick Nolte — step off the parking lot tarmac and onto the Appalachian Trail, there’s not a lot to do other than put one foot in front of the other and engage in yearbook conversation.

Also recall that when Bryson hit the trail, and later wrote the hilarious and hugely popular novel of the same name, he was 47. Redford is now 80, give or take a few months. Nolte is 74. These are not two guys having a mid-life crisis, of sorts, hoping to encounter an epiphany in the backwoods, while hiking from Georgia to Maine (2,200 miles); rather, they’re two codgers who’ve convinced themselves that a change of scenery (or a splash of adventure) might give than a fresh outlook on life. You want to change the all too familiar view out the living room window — make sure that wherever you go, there’s room service and fresh sheets.

Now the film could have taken artistic license with the book and written some dialogue (or lots of dialogue, even voiceover) about how old guys just don’t casually sling a 60-pound pack, laden with gear, over their shoulders and walk six months through the Smokey Mountains, sleeping on the ground in their three-season tents. When you’re 70 to 80, the body has long ago begun to signal that “the golden years” was a slogan invented to sell cruise ship jaunts and never intended to indicate that you should be spending hours debating the efficacy of a hiking boot or a backpack with a kid in his early 20s who works for REI.

Had “A Walk in the Woods” been about geezer conversation, how, for example, mortality haunts each day, but that life is still great, well, all to the good. Who better to have such a chat around a campfire than Nolte and Redford (although Nolte is living proof that it’s not the years, it’s the mileage)?

What the film does instead is settle for some gags, most taking place in a small towns, most off-trail. Katz has a conversation in a Laundromat with a friendly, plus-size lady whose panties get caught in spin cycle and happens to have a jealous husband. Not that funny. Or the guys stop at a trail youth hostel and Katz wrecks the top bunk, landing on the bottom bunk that happens to have Bryson in it. Briefly funny, but seemingly staged.

One other thing: At the start of the hike, Katz and Bryson are strangers. It’s been decades since they’ve hung out. There could’ve been a lot to say, and yet, with some long-ago friends, maybe there isn’t. That was then, this is now. But even that isn’t fully explored and could have been.

What saved the popular Reese Witherspoon film, “Wild,”from being just another solitary journey to self-discovery was the significant backstory. Carol Strayed, author of the book, was a lost soul and openly shared the reasons through flashbacks, including a wonderful performance by Laura Dern as her mother.

“A Walk in the Woods” lacks that richness.

Last point: Redford and Nolte are two actors who have demonstrated for decades that they can move across a wide spectrum of characters. Initially, Redford wanted to do this film with Paul Newman; instead it remained on his shelf far too long. While it’s great to hang out with these two, the film feels like a vanity piece and a bit aimless.