Travel humorist Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) has fallen into a rut. Retired from both writing and traveling, Bryson has settled into a comfortable domestic life in New Hampshire with his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) and a legion of children and grandchildren. He would seem, to many, to be living an ideal existence, but after attending the funeral of an acquaintance, Bryson takes an impromptu walk and winds up at the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200-mile stretch that connects Georgia to Maine. Bryson suddenly has an epiphany – he is going to recapture some of his lost youthful zeal and hike the entire trail. His wife thinks he’s gone batty and tells him that if he insists on embarking on such a dangerous trek, he cannot go alone. Thus Bryson reaches out to everyone he knows, and receives an avalanche of “thanks, but no thanks” responses. But out of the blue, a long-lost old friend, Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte, playing a wizened version of his mugshot) calls and says he’s onboard for the journey. Bryson actually didn’t reach out to Stephen in his solicitation for a hiking buddy, but he accepts Stephen’s company all the same.
This is the setup for A Walk in the Woods, the adaptation of the 1998 memoir written by the real Bill Bryson. The film, a sort of hybrid of Grumpy Old Men and Wild (with a dash of Planes, Trains and Automobiles) catalogues the adventure these two old friends experience as they push past their years to prove they can still hack it with hikers a fraction of their age. The film mines a lot of material out of the differences between Bryson and Stephen, the former being fit and collected, the latter being slovenly and out of shape. The two friends had some wild times together in their youth, but went their separate ways when Bryson became a responsible adult while Stephen opted to remain a hard-living ne’er-do-well. While Bryson clearly has a personal agenda with this hike, something he needs to prove to himself, Stephen is only along for the ride because he has nothing better to do. And though Bryson isn’t exactly built for a trip this inherently arduous, Stephen is completely out of his element, his corpulent form and perpetually wheezing state making him seem like he’s always about eight seconds away from a heart attack (indeed, Nolte looks so unhealthy here that it’s not even clear how he survived the shoot).
As they shuffle along, the two men collect a series of zany encounters, with an obnoxious young hiker (Kristen Schaal, playing her trademark role as a know-it-all irritant), the jealous husband of a plus-sized object of Stephen’s affections and a couple of errant grizzly bears, all of which provide the geriatric duo a means of deploying laboriously wacky humor. A Walk in the Woods primarily conducts itself as a lighter-than-air comedy, with the two old friends constantly bickering and engaging in pratfalls and hijinks. Not once does there ever arise any sense of true danger for Bryson and Stephen, nor does the film ever make an honest stab at anything profound or heartfelt. There’s a curious weightlessness to the proceedings that makes the film feel entirely inconsequential. The film essentially comes across like a Farley/Spade vehicle calibrated specifically for grandparents.
It’s very strange how little the film attempts to be saying, all told. We barely get a sense of Bryson’s ennui before he gets the hiking bug. Is it due to his age? The placidity of his day-to-day life? A way to confront his mortality? Probably all of the above, but none of this really comes across from how the character is initially presented to us. Out in the woods, the two men engage in talk of the past and the pitfalls of the paths they have each chosen, but none of it feels deep or insightful. And once the journey is finished, there isn’t any lingering sense of what it all added up to, beyond the reconnection enjoyed by estranged former friends. In Wild, at least the journey had weighty dramatic implications for its protagonist. A Walk in the Woods feels like a facile lark.
Of the two leads, Nolte fares a bit better. His guttural rasp of a voice affords Stephen’s disreputable backstory a richness that feels lived-in. Redford doesn’t make as much of an impression, rendering Bryson a milquetoast with no real texture. The banter between the two is never particularly funny, though it is crasser than expected. The supporting cast amounts to very little. Thompson brings her extremely British charms to what is a stock worried-wife role. Schaal plays a version of a character we’ve seen her do many times before, and then abruptly vanishes from the film. Nick Offerman is similarly typecast as a Ron Swanson-esque man’s-man of an outdoor recreation equipment salesman. Mary Steenburgen is handed the wholly inconsequential role of a kindly hotel proprietress. Everything about the film is so insubstantial as to evaporate on sight.
A Walk in the Woods ultimately suffers from a fate common to many book-to-film adaptations, which is that not every story that works in written form is inherently cinematic. One can see where Bryson and Stephen’s voyage would function quite well in the context of a memoir, but blown up into a big-screen depiction, the tale feels slight and undernourished, and ultimately strains for the sort of overarching point that film somewhat demands. Bryson might have learned something about himself out in the woods, but the film made about his exploits merely feels lost out there.
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