Movie review: Robert Redford’s hiking film ‘A Walk in the Woods’ has a few hitches
Is it possible that we’re in the midst of new trend in movies? In 2010, there was “The Way,” in which Martin Sheen went on a 500-mile hike along Spain’s Camino de Santiago. In 2013, Mia Wasikowska took a 1,700-mile one through the deserts of West Australia in “Tracks.” Last year, Reese Witherspoon was Oscar nominated for tackling the 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in “Wild.” So do three similarly themed films in such a short time span make for a trend?
Nah, call it a coincidence. But wait a minute, here comes another one. OK, it’s official. With Robert Redford and Nick Nolte attempting “A Walk in the Woods” over the Appalachian Trail, stretching 2,118 miles from Georgia to Maine, it’s a trend.
Based on the 1998 memoir by travel writer Bill Bryson, this lighthearted tale of two guys who are probably too old to attempt such a feat is both picturesque and picaresque. The vistas are amazing and (most of) the stories are amusing.
But fans of the popular Bryson book are going to have to get over a big hurdle. In the book, the two men were in their mid-40s. In the film, Bryson (Redford) and Stephen Katz (Nolte) are in their 70s. The age business that didn’t exist before is now one of the story’s major issues.
“It’s just something I have to do,” says Bryson to his concerned wife Catherine (Emma Thompson), who immediately says no, then softens it to, “You’re not doing it alone.” But everyone he calls responds with disinterest, till he’s surprised by a call that comes to him, from his old pal Katz, with whom he shared a European travel adventure 40 years earlier.
And so we get a story of opposites. Bryson has led a full life, and has lots of accomplishments to his name. Katz is a rascal, who may be on the run from the law for small-time crimes. Bryson is internal; he doesn’t like talking to people. Katz is a loud, boisterous storyteller. Bryson’s got class. Katz is crass.
Redford is given most of the script’s low-key verbal humor. Nolte gets the physical comedy. Both are on target with their delivery. Before long they’re off to Georgia via plane in April and, packs on their backs, Katz is huffing and puffing on the first incline.
Viewers would soon lose interest if this was just about these two fellows sharing small talk about the good old days all along the route, so the script continually fills in spots with colorful characters. Hiker Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal) joins them for a while, but she is so annoying with her constant banter and urge to sing aloud, the ever-calm Bryson finally admits to the usually excitable Katz, in whispered, comic manner, that he’d like to “rip her larynx out.” At a motel stop, they meet the overworked owner Jeannie (Mary Steenburgen), who appears to take a shining to Bryson, who would never even consider cheating on his wife.
But like some sparklingly funny slapstick bits – Redford and Nolte meeting a bear, a bunk bed that collapses as it would in a “Three Stooges” short – the cameo appearances and the scenes built around them don’t go anywhere. They’re sloppily slapped into the film, played out, then forgotten. They take up space rather than move the film along.
As April turns into May, and May turns into June, it’s back to the two guys on the trail, wending their way north. The script does provide some time for serious talk about the human condition, as seen through their own eyes. Something along the lines of “the universe is big and we’re small.” There’s even a little bit of non-perilous peril thrown in for good measure.
So do Bryson and Katz accomplish what they believe will be a life-changing experience? It doesn’t really matter. The most important thing is that they went on a journey. Funny, I can’t recall how any of those other three long trek movies ended. I guess it didn’t matter there, either.
A WALK IN THE WOODS
Written by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman; directed by Ken Kwapis
With Robert Redford and Nick Nolte
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now