Synopsis: After spending two decades in England, Bill Bryson returns to the U.S., where he decides the best way to connect with his homeland is to hike the Appalachian Trail with one of his oldest friends.
Stars: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Nick Offerman, Kristen Schaal, Mary Steenburgen
Director: Ken Kwapis
Running Length: 104 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Bill Bryson’s novel A Walk in the Woods was first published in 1998 and has enjoyed a healthy popularity these past 17 years…so popular in fact that I wasn’t able to snag a copy from my local library in time to get it read before a recent viewing of the screen adaptation. Now if I had started to read the book when the film was first announced, I would have had plenty of time. Robert Redford originally optioned the book to produce and star in way back in 2005 and the road to the big screen was at times as rocky as the Appalachian Trail featured so prominently in the book.
After directors like Barry Levinson and Chris Columbus were considered, the film landed with Ken Kwapis who last directed the less than miraculous Big Miracle and instead of Redford’s first choice of Paul Newman to play the role of his gruff companion the role was taken up by Nick Nolte. Good things come to those who wait, though, and fans of Bryson’s book and of the Oscar winning director of Ordinary People should find that the journey, though bumpy at times, is worth taking.
Novelist Bryson (Redford) was known for his travel books with a humorous spin and when he returns home after living most of his adult life abroad, he becomes keenly aware that life is moving along rapidly and there are still some adventures he wants to explore. That comes in the form of an idea to hike the notoriously difficulty Appalachian Trail, a 2,200 mile journey that takes hikers from all walks of life through 13 states. But he can’t do it alone. Or, more accurately, his wife (Emma Thompson, Beautiful Creatures, pleasant but with nothing much to do) won’t let the aging expat go on his own. Working his way through phone numbers of friends, he gets a call from a man he hasn’t seen in 40 years.
Stephen Katz (Nolte, Noah) is a grizzled grizzly bear of a man, an out of shape sober alcoholic that happily volunteers to accompany Bryson on the five month excursion. Soon Bryson and Katz are packed up and headed into the wild blue yonder, huffing and puffing after a ¼ mile of hiking. Persistence is the name of game and over the course of the next several months the men will ramble onward, argue, unite, and come to understand the other better than they could have expected.
You don’t need a compass to see how it will all turn out but the fun is in the journey and while the destination may not be unexpected the spry performances are what really will be the selling point here. Redford is enjoying a carefully considered comeback that started with The Company You Keep in 2012, followed by his critically acclaimed (but Oscar ignored) turn in All is Lost. He even got his superhero fix with 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Redford lets Nolte do most of the heavy comic lifting but his weary face (he looks like a half deflated balloon) and wise aura give him the authority the character needs.
If Redford looks a bit withered, Nolte is positively bursting at the seams. With his burly mountain man hair and beard, a face that’s always a distinct shade of red, and that gravelly voice that sounds like he gargled with pebbles he’s right at home in Katz’s larger than life walking boots. Also making glorified cameo appearances are Nick Offerman (We’re the Millers) in a throwaway role as an REI salesperson, Kristen Schaal (Despicable Me 2) playing an annoying trail acquaintance the two men can’t get rid of, and Mary Steenburgen (Parenthood) as a kindly motel owner that feels shoehorned in to test Bryson’s marital resolve.
At times the movie feels more like a CliffsNotes version of Bryson’s novel, with several characters popping up and then never returning. I was particularly puzzled by Steenburgen’s arc, the film takes time to introduce her and her mute mother, lets her explain how the motel has been in her family for 80 years, shows her working at the hotel’s restaurant, then promptly forgets about her as if she never existed. Steenburgen (another Oscar winner) can play this role in her sleep and it feels like she was doing someone a favor by popping in.
The first half of the film is front loaded with comedic bits with the men getting to know one another while experiencing great physical exertion. It’s during the final half and especially the finale that it turns into a meandering dramedy with both Nolte and Redford getting their moments of speechifying that feel obligatory rather than necessary.
There’s a lot visually to like here with John Bailey’s (The Way Way Back) cinematography capturing the picturesque vistas Bryson and Katz catch along the way. It’s not all rosy, though, with several mountainous regions looking shockingly fake and more than a few shots of Bryson and Katz traversing the terrain where it’s comically clear that stand-ins are being used for the stars.
Stubbornly rated R simply for too many curse words, the film could have been softened a bit to come in with a PG-13. Still, A Walk in the Woods hits its stride early and manages to make it to the end without too many blisters. It’s a nice showcase for Redford and Nolte, a pleasant fork in the road in the latter half of their careers.