A Walk in the Woods (2015) / Comedy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: R for language and some sexual references
Running Time: 104 min.
Cast: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Kristen Schaal
Small role: Nick Offerman
Director: Ken Kwapis
Screenplay: Rick Kerb, Bill Holderman (based on the book by Bill Bryson)
Review published September 7, 2015
Bill Bryson's 1998 best-selling travelogue memoir of the same name provides the backbone of this loose adaptation, recalling his attempt to walk the nearly 2200-mile Appalachian Trail. Bryson (Redford, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) finds himself at an advanced age when many adventurers would have been content to coast into retirement on one's memories, but after attending the funeral of a friend, and knowing the end isn't going to be too far off himself, he gets the idea to get back out and see what's left in the proverbial tank to experience. Bryson's British wife of 40 years, Catherine (Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks), isn't happy about it, but she agrees to support him if he doesn't do it alone. Bryson can't find anyone willing to do it, except for long-estranged acquaintance Stephen Katz (Nolte, Return to Sender), someone he didn't even ask (or want), who is a mess, a hedonistic slob who is sorely out of shape and completely inexperienced at hiking, but Bryson figures he'll give up early so that he can proceed on his own as planned. Heading out to Georgia to start the trail that will lead them up to Maine, the two men head out on the trail, where they learn a thing or two about who they really are, as well as how dangerous it is for them to undertake such an arduous journey in their condition.
79-year-old Robert Redford is his usual easygoing, wry self, but his performance comes off a bit stiff and mannered, in a mostly comedic role that's probably one of the least meaty in his long and respected career. A Walk in the Woods is delivered on a sitcom level with various vignettes all crafted to deliver punch-lines or whimsy, piling on the scenes until we get to the ending that feels like it's tacked on just the have an end cap. Nolte, whose voice is now so gravelly that it sounds like he's trying to gargle shards of glass when he speaks, gets the more showy role, and does find in good character work, even if the lines he's given make Katz come off as more of a caricature than as a portrayal of a real human being. Redford, who cultivated the film to production over many years, had originally wanted this to be his third collaboration with Paul Newman, which would have been delightful for their fans, but sadly, the late Newman couldn't do it from a health perspective at that point in his life. On a side note, it would be surprising to most to note that, of the two septuagenarians, Nolte is the only one who can claim to have once been chosen People Magazine's 'Sexiest Man Alive'.
Interestingly, Bryson's memoir is about a hike he and Katz did when they were in their 40s (Bryson, at 63 years of age in 2015, still isn't as old as the men in the film based on his experiences in the 1990s), so the fact that we see two men in their 70s attempt the 2,100-plus mile journey makes it feel like a much different and far more crazy notion than whatever had been alluded to in the written work in which age isn't close to being a main issue. Where it should have felt like Wild-meets-City Slickersickers, A Walk in the Wood comes across like most "last-hurrah' buddy films featuring older veteran actors doing something we like seeing them in one more time, much like Wild Hogs, Space Cowboys, Last Vegas and The Bucket List. While it does often seem absurd due to the push forward in age, it also leads to a few attempts at poignant moments of varying success, and does make what they're doing at any given time seem incredibly dangerous for two men who could easily expire if they aren't careful, and of how appreciative they are to live another day of life.
A Walk in the Woods Wood is directed without much style or attempt at substance by Ken Kwapis, whose filmography features equally low-reaching comedies like He's Just Not That Into You, License to Wed, and Vibes. Kwapis brings that same laight, easy-peasy quality to this film, never pressing beyond just going for whatever might please general audiences, homogenized to not lose anyone in the process, even though the film is rated R in the United States. Bittersweet themes of life, love, and loss are curtailed in favor of mild raunch, sex-tinged humor, and well-worn quips about getting old to elicit a few half-hearted chuckles from audiences not setting a high bar, or much of a bar at all, in their entertainment.
The gags are sometimes so mild, they're barely perceptible, even when they go for laughs, such as an encounter with bears, or a hotel clerk who doesn't speak much. There are also some side characters who seem like story threads left on the cutting room floor, especially Mary Steenburgen (Song One) , who looks like a potential romantic dalliance in the making that would appear might have been consummated in an earlier cut, but now we're left with a phone call we're not privy to hear to try to sum things up before moving on, possibly to test audience displeasure. Then there are tacky fat jokes where Katz tries to score with a portly woman at a laundromat, but ends up drawing the ire of her current jealous hubby in a scene that feels lifted from a similar one in Sideways, the film A Walk in the Woods seems to crib the most from in structure, only far less daring or funny.
The film has the chance for good pith and honest reflection, including one where Katz has to confront his own alcoholism, but is would rather go for the obvious whenever it's an available option, so there's never a surprise on how things will play out in this adaptation that would likely have never been more than a made-for-TV movie without Redford's involvement.
©2015 Vince Leo