‘A Walk in the Woods’ Is a Cinematic Walk in the Park
“A Walk in the Woods,” a feather-light adaptation of Bill Bryson’s 1998 memoir about his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, should come with a disclaimer.
Something like: “The characters played by Robert Redford and Nick Nolte in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living—namely, travel scribe Bryson and his Falstaffian pal Stephen Katz—is purely coincidental.”
That said, director Ken Kwapis’ film is entertaining in a Grumpy Old Bucket List kind of way. Here is a slapstick comedy about two septuagenarians rediscovering America and their friendship, enjoying the view while not always enjoying each other’s company. As characters, Bryson is an anxious success and Katz a happy failure, which makes for some byplay of the “Odd Couple” sort.
After attending the wake of a friend, Bryson announces to his wife, Catherine (an underutilized Emma Thompson), that he’d like to hike the 2,100-mile trail that snakes near his New Hampshire home. She insists he take a friend. The only one willing to go is one he hasn’t seen since they tramped through Europe 40 years ago.
While the screen Bryson doesn’t get existential about the inherent metaphor of the journey, it is understood that the death of his friend makes him want to try something life-affirming. Redford’s Bryson is terse and sardonic, most animated when talking about rock formations. His riff on walking through rocks and forests that have evolved over geological time suggests another reason for his journey: Surrounding himself with such ancient scenery makes him feel young.
When Bryson announces his intention to hike the Appalachian, Catherine dissuades him with articles about predatory grizzly bears and decomposing corpses found on the trail. The film’s one visual joke is that Nick Nolte is large and intimidating, a human grizzly, more likely to scare away the bears than vice versa. Although at 74, Nolte is five years his co-star’s junior, the younger actor’s general dissipation, wheeziness and shagginess makes him seem older than Redford’s spry 79. The actors use their contrasting physiques like Laurel and Hardy.
Even though Kwapis hired the gifted cinematographer John Bailey to shoot the film, the result is picturesque rather than cinematic, as if it were composed from Instagram posts of a camping trip.
What with the intermittent disquisition on how the East Coast hardwoods are dying out, the film’s eco-politics are green as the Smoky Mountain forests. Less progressive are its gender politics, with the film’s few female characters presented as nags (Thompson), pests (Kristen Schaal as a perky hiker) or sexual prospects (Mary Steenburgen as a motel owner).
Still, unlike most offerings on the multiplex menu, you can watch this one with your 80-year-old uncle and your 15-year-old daughter. Everyone will have a reasonably good time without muddying their boots.