You’d have to be quite a cynic to really hate A Walk In The Woods. Even at its most mundane and tepid, you can’t help but be caught in some form of nostalgic appreciation because you’re watching Robert Redford and Nick Nolte share the screen together. Unfortunately, despite the two acting titans managing to eke out heart and humanity from their characters in a subtle and unique fashion, Redford and Nolte aren’t able to stop this adaptation from being wholly unremarkable and, ultimately, forgettable.
Which is a shame, because A Walk In The Woods actually breezes out of the blocks in a forthright, funny, and even slightly profound fashion. Redford stars as author Bill Bryson, who -- after living in Great Britain for 20 years and forging a successful literary career -- has been back in New Hampshire for a decade. Now in his early 60’s, Bryson is looking for his next adventure, which is when he stumbles upon The Appalachian Trail.
Now, for those of you who don’t know, The Appalachian Trail runs 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, crossing through 12 other states along the way. In other words, it’s a hell of walk. Heartened by the serendipitous discovery of the path, Bryson decides that he is going to try and walk it. But after being repeatedly reminded of his age and informed of the many pitfalls that come with walking the trail by his wife (who is gloriously played by the always majestic Emma Thompson), Bryson looks for a companion for his trip. This eventually comes in the form of Nick Nolte’s Stephen Katz, an old friend with whom he travelled around Europe 20 years earlier, and who, rather than being invited, actually invites himself along for the journey.
There’s our issue. Or, one of them, at least. A Walk In The Woods fails to blossom into a worthwhile film for the simple reason that when Robert Redford and Nick Nolte actually set out on their hike into the wilderness, it loses its momentum. Early on, director Ken Kwapis is able to set up interesting thematic content, such as Redford’s character having a legacy, and facing mortality. But rather than this being done in a morbid fashion, Redford provides warmth and laughs as the cranky but driven Bryson. Plus, he also gets sterling help from Nick Offerman and Emma Thompson. Did I tell you I love Emma Thompson? I don’t care if I already did; it deserves to be said twice.
The arrival of Nick Nolte and his slightly over-the-top approach to comedy adds to A Walk In The Woods’ momentum early on, and there’s hope that it could be a touching and amusing tale that caters to an audience that Hollywood usually ignores. Heck, after having Thompson, Nolte, and Redford warm my cockles with their little, genuine touches of acting, I was dreaming Walk could have been a Sideways for pensioners.
Unfortunately though, once the pair hit the trail, the film loses all of its rhythm and almost instantly becomes stagnate. Kwapis fails to take advantage of the breath-taking scenes at his disposal, and you can’t help but feel that the film is being shot in Redford’s back garden. A Walk In The Woods’ script also fails to gel, and instead, scenes just bounce off each other, while it lacks any punch or genuine peril. Instead, it’s just two old men slowly walking and bickering. For nearly two hours.
Even the arrival of the always-watchable Kristen Schaal fails to provide any mirth or enjoyment. Punch lines and call-back jokes fall flat, while any discussions on mortality, legacy, alcoholism, the perils of the woods or education that were previously threatened are either cast aside or handled in a pretentious and preachy manner. There’s also a severely misplaced threat of romance between Redford’s Bryson and Mary Steenburgen’s hotel owner that is simply bizarre. That might just be my devotion to Emma Thompson talking, though.
But, still, come the end I couldn’t help but feel a wave of contented sentimentality for simply being in the presence of two acting masters for close to two hours. It’s just a shame that, after taking several wrong turns of its own, A Walk In The Woods ultimately failed to provide them with the material to truly showcase their unerring talents. An inoffensive waste.
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