A WALK IN THE WOODS (Dir. Ken Kwapis, 2015)
Many critics have been dumping on this movie (it’s at 52% on the Rotten Tomatometer), but I found it be a fairly charming, pleasant, and mildly amusing experience. Admittedly, it’s a corny, predictable, and lightweight mash-up of GRUMPY OLD MEN and WILD, but its leads, Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, play off each other well and generate a lot of warmth together.
Redford, who co-produced, plays author Bill Bryson in this adaptation of the acclaimed travel writer’s 1998 book “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail,” and despite the fact that Bryson was in his mid ‘40s when he made the hike while Redford is nearing 80, it’s a role that I had no trouble going along with.
Growing more and more restless in his retirement, as we can see from an awkward TV talk show appearance and an even more uncomfortable moment at a friend’s funeral, Redford’s Bryson is itching for a new adventure. While taking a walk after the funeral, Bryson stumbles upon a section of the Appalachian Trail near his home in New Hampshire and the idea of tackling the 2,100 mile hike and getting back to nature, starts to take root.
Bryson’s wife (Emma Thompson) thinks the idea is crazy, and prints up a stack of newspaper reports of hikers getting killed by bears with a post-it note attached that says “you’re not going alone!”
Bryson calls every friend he has, but nobody is interested in accompanying him. Then he gets a call from an old estranged friend, Stephen Katz played by the famously grizzled Nolte, who heard about the hike and asks if he can go. Bryson reluctantly agrees with the offer, and the two hit the trail which starts at Springer Mountain in Georgia.
Not far into the trail Bryson and Katz meet Kristen Schaal as a judgy, obnoxious fellow hiker who sings Daft Punk songs at the top of her lungs. The two elders are so annoyed by Schaal that they ditch her and even hitchhike a stretch to get ahead of her.
From there on out, the elderly duo encounter food-stealing bears, life-altering mountain views, a blizzard, the jealous shotgun-toting husband of a woman Nolte takes up with in one of the towns along the way (a SIDEWAYS-ish sideline), and Mary Steenburgen, who always seems to pop up in movies like this, as a friendly hotel owner who flirts with Redford.
Unsurprisingly, Nolte and Redford bicker until they bond, and end up exchanging great truths under the stars while they are trapped on a ledge on the side of a cliff under the path. That sort of stuff.
There’s not much visual artistry to the film; it’s workingmanlike cinematography at best (same goes for Kwapis’ direction) by longtime director of photography, John Bailey, but it frames these gruff old guys good enough, even if it doesn’t awe us as much as it tries (or as much as it awes our leads) with its wide stretches of scenery.
Redford originally developed this project as a vehicle for he and Paul Newman – it would’ve been their third film together after their classics BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and THE STING - but Newman had the nerve to die before it could be come to fruition (would love to see that version).
Nolte fits the part of Katz like a glove – he’s boozy without boozing (he says he’s reformed but Redford finds a bottle of whiskey hidden in his backpack), and he goes on the hike to avoid some outstanding warrants back in Des Moines – definitely a character in the actor’s wheelhouse. Plus, Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman’s screenplay adaptation of Bryson’s tome gives Nolte the funniest, saltiest lines like “There are only two men in the world that would sleep with her, and here we are in the same damn town!”
It’s a part that Redford could play in his sleep – the noble accomplished everyman, who uses dry humor as a defense mechanism – but he appears to be having fun here; it’s a welcome fluffy break after his weighty turns in ALL IS LOST and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER and it’s much more preferable to his own directed films of late (the preachy LIONS FOR LAMBS and THE COMPANY YOU KEEP).
A WALK IN THE WOODS is a not bad, but not great buddy road (or mountain?) comedy that boasts a couple of likable legends roughing it (and slumming it) likably. If you manage expectations and go in not expecting Neil Simon you should be fine.