Into the mild
A Walk In the Woods actually spends very little time in the woods. It does, however, spend plenty of time in remote hotels, Laundromats, rental car parking lots, residential homes and diners.
This film has bounced around as a project for nearly 20 years, at one point being positioned as a reunion movie for Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Now, that might’ve been something very cool, even with a script that goes for sitcom laughs and poop jokes. Seeing Newman and Redford on screen again together would’ve earned a lot of good will from audiences, even if the characters they played were a bit tacky.
Instead, we get Redford following up some great performances (All is Lost, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) with perhaps his worst one, swapping bad dialogue with the perpetually croaky Nick Nolte in full clown mode. It winds up being a rough two-hour slog.
Redford plays Bill Bryson, the real life writer whose book the film is based upon. While taking a walk during somebody’s funeral, he spies the Appalachian Trail. After a few hours Googling and taking in some pictures, he decides he’s going to do the 2,000-mile hike, much to his wife’s (Emma Thompson) chagrin, who insists he gets a hiking partner.
Bryson finds a partner in Stephen Katz (Nolte), a friend he fell out with years ago who very much wants to go hiking with him for no real explainable reasons. The two eventually set out on the trail, but the chemistry between Redford and Nolte is non-existent, as if the two men have never met before. They just look and feel weird together, and while that’s something intended to be funny, it winds up being unsettling and odd.
What constitutes humor in this film? Bryson and Katz are sleeping in their tents when a couple of big bears wander into their camp. Bryson hears their approach, and the first thing he does is yell to Katz’s tent, probably not a good idea since bears have these things called ears. Then, Bryson just happens to have a bear attack handbook nearby, and he coaches Nolte to stand up in his tent and yell a lot. So the bears see a couple of tents jumping around, and decide they don’t like that sort of thing and scamper off without ripping their faces off. Hahahahaha!
First off, possible bear attacks aren’t particularly funny. They are scary. I’m all good with a scene where two guys manage to get hungry bears out of their camp, but I’m not good with a scene that feels like it should be in one of those goofy Disney Channel sitcoms. Watching Redford and Nolte behaving like asses and inserting some shots of bears roaring in disapproval is as weak as it gets.
It seems the main direction given to Redford on this film was “Do your best surprised and confused look!” He spends half the film looking ridiculous on top of doing ridiculous things like falling down and getting stuck in the mud. Nolte is asked to stuff pancakes in his face and help an overweight woman who gets her panties stuck in a washing machine while doing his best Gabby Hayes impersonation. It’s downright embarrassing watching them in action.
The movie is directed in a rather pedestrian way by Ken Kwapis, maker of such landmark films as The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Dunston Checks In, so that explains a lot. Directors who were slated to helm the film in the early stages of production include Richard Linklater (Boyhood, School of Rock) and Larry Charles (Borat). I think something interesting would’ve been delivered by either one of those guys rather than something akin to a “Let’s go camping!” episode of Full House.
In the end, this movie isn’t really about hiking the Appalachian Trail. It’s more about trying to hike the Appalachian Trail and getting into wacky hijinks along the way. A better title would’ve been A Walk Into a Laundromat to Mess with Some Large Lady’s Underwear After Eating a Bunch of Pancakes While Mugging for the Camera a Whole Lot … and Then Maybe We’ll Actually Hike In the Woods for, Like, 10 Minutes.