An aging writer and his gruff, alcoholic, out-of-shape friend confront their respective mid-life crises by taking to the Appalachian Trail. The gallivanting geezers rediscover the great outdoors and their friendship while experiencing misadventures along the way. A Walk in the Woods is a fun buddy flick overall, but its forest is not quite as refreshing as you might hope.
Based on the 1998 memoir of the same name, by renowned travel author, Bill Bryson, this back-to-nature biopic has its heroes spending more time in hotels than it does in the woods, but that’s part of its charm as these guys really have no business traipsing around the countryside, which makes for some very funny scenarios.
Robert Redford plays the author, Bill Bryson, who, after attending the funeral of friend, begins to feel like something is missing in his mostly well-to-do life. He can’t quite put what he is feeling into words, but he thinks taking this 2,200 mile hike will help to resolve his problems.
Bryson’s wife (Emma Thompson) will not permit him to make his journey unless he brings someone with him, but all his friends turn him down until an old acquaintance, Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), gets wind of the plan and asks to come along.
Katz has really let himself go in the decades since Bryson last saw him, and Nick Nolte basically plays himself, as a walking, talking train wreck – and like any train wreck, you can’t look away. I mean this as a compliment as the weathered Nolte is fascinating to watch, stealing the entire film out from under Redford.
Nearly 10 years ago, when the book first came out, the part of Katz was intended for Redford’s friend, Paul Newman, and the movie was meant to be a swan-song of sorts for the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid film partnership. While watching the movie you can certainly picture Newman in the Katz part, but I think that Nolte is actually a better and more interesting fit.
Directed by Ken Kwapis (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), A Walk in the Woods has great cameos by Nick Offerman as a sporting goods salesman, and The Daily Show’s Kristen Schaal as a know-it-all hiker nerd. But it also has a glaring misstep with Mary Steenburgen as a potential love interest for Redford’s Bryson.
This Steenburgen segment was completely unnecessary and awkward and a waste of her talent; and I still don’t know what the heck was going on with her character’s mother in this movie, a woman who stares off into space and smiles. Does she have Alzheimer’s disease? It’s just a weird, pointless scene that is never explained.
Another poorly conceived part of the film has the protagonists stuck on a cliff, or what I should say is a badly designed soundstage. It is so obviously faked that it takes you clean out of the movie, especially for a film where the outdoor locations are as important as the characters.
My final criticism is scene with Katz helping a heavy-set woman get her panties unstuck from a washing machine mechanism. You’d think a film like this would not have to resort to that type of crude and mean-spirited humor, and yet, disappointingly, there it is.
I still had a fun watching this movie. Nick Nolte is mesmerizing throughout the film and, apparently, did live through it. There is also some great music by the indie band, Lord Huron. A Walk in the Woods is far from perfect, but it’s sure to find an audience, especially among the geriatric set. Grade: 6.5/10
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