During my mildly enjoyable viewing of “A Walk in the Woods”, I got familiar impressions. I have seen other movies which did a better job of handling similar subjects than this passable one. I also have seen other cases where its good actors were utilized better than here. I was not bored, but my mind kept drifting from its rote narrative as occasionally thinking about better things out there.
The movie is based on the memoir of the same name by Bill Bryson, who is played by Robert Redford. The opening scene shows Bryson’s successful travel writer career as he is doing an interview for a morning TV program, but this old guy begins to feel that something is missing in his affluent life, and that feeling is more palpable to him especially after he and his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson, who is criminally under-utilized in the movie) attend the funeral of one of his old friends.
When they return to their cozy suburban neighbourhood in New Hampshire, Bryson comes upon an idea. He notices the Appalachian National Scenic Trail near his neighbourhood, and he decides to do a thru-hiking along this famous long trail which is as difficult and demanding as the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and the Pacific Crest National Scene Trail (These three trails are known together as the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking in US, by the way)
As he prepares for his hiking, it is apparent that he is not well prepared to say the least. He has already entered his 60s, and his concerned wife informs him of how many things can go wrong while he spends several months on the trail which is around 2,200 mile (3,500 km). When he goes to an equipment shop with his son who is as worried as his wife, the owner of the shop, who is played by ever-reliable Nick Offerman, flatly reminds Bryson of his lack of knowledge and experience. During the moment when the owner shows Bryson a certain necessary tool, I was reminded of why I dislike outdoor activities like camping or hiking; I may enjoy those wide, fabulous views of nature for a few hours, but then, as your average fastidious autistic guy, I will desperately crave for nice, stable bedroom and bathroom sooner or later.
When Bryson looks for a partner, nearly all of his friends reject his request for understandable reasons, and then someone unexpected approaches to him. Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), an old friend whom Bryson has not met for many years since when they were young and wild together, is willing to join the hiking, but you can see that things will not go very well for them, right from when you hear that creaky hoarse voice of Nolte, who looks older and shaggier than Redford although he is actually 5 years younger than his co-star.
They indeed face troubles as they begin their hiking at the southern end of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. Besides his problematic legs, Katz is sloppy and overweight, and he is also an alcoholic who has been recovering from the bottom he hit recently. While he is healthier than Katz, Bryson also comes to feel his biological limits – especially when he and his friend encounter hikers far younger than them.
Like any movies about long road journey, small and big things happen around Bryson and Katz while they struggle along the trail. They accompany a chirpy young hiker girl for a while, but then they cringe at how insufferable she is (With her irrepressible perkiness, Kristen Schaal is as hysterical as her loony supporting character in TV sitcom series “30 Rock”). They stay at a motel for rest, but then they get into a trouble they manage to run away from. During one night, as predictably warned from the beginning, they find themselves suddenly cornered by one of the most dangerous things they can encounter on the trail, and there is a funny moment when they improvise a silly but surprisingly effective way to deal with their potentially lethal circumstance.
But the adapted screenplay by Bill Holderman and Michael Arndt, who is credited as Rick Kerb, merely walks by these moments and other ones on the trail. Many of the supporting characters in the film are broad or underdeveloped, and it is a shame to see that Mary Steenburgen, who still looks brimming with life and spirit as much as she did in her Oscar-winning turn in “Melvin and Howard” (1980), is wasted in her thankless role. The movie suggests something going on between her character and Bryson, but then, alas, it throws away that possibility and goes forward for a broader moment associated with Katz.
Redford and Nolte easily fill their roles with each own star presence. As shown from his challenging solo performance in “All Is Lost” (2013), Redford is still an effortless actor with charm and charisma, and not many actors in Hollywood can play a flawed raggedy dude better than Nolte. Considering that Nolte still has his distinctive bad boy charm, it is rather disappointing that the movie does not try something naughtier when Katz flirts with a plump lady he meets at a local laundry. During one scene later in the story, I was reminded of that famous moment in Redford’s certain classic film, but then it turned out I expected too much.
Anyway, the movie is not a total waste of time, and it has a few good things besides its two engaging lead actors. I enjoyed its frequent wide shots of various locations along the Appalachian Trail, and the cinematographer John Bailey did a commendable job of presenting these beautiful sceneries on the screen. If you want a more satisfying movie about nature, hiking, and self-discovery, I will recommend you “Wild” (2014) instead, but “A Walk in the Woods” may be not so bad if you just want to kill your free time.