Take a hike
When Robert Redford signed on to play the villain in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he reportedly told directors Joe and Anthony Russo that he had no interest in the material, but that he would “do it for my grandkids.” Hollywood liberal fat cats: always blaming the children. Redford’s latest I-could-care-less vehicle is the Ken Kwapis-directed cue-card comedy A Walk in the Woods, a moldy, unairable, two-hour sitcom pilot that I would downgrade cable plans in order to avoid. It’s so lackluster and musty that Redford may as well have made it for his grandparents.
A Walk in the Woods is based on a memoir by travel writer Bill Bryson, but everything about the film feels artificial and forced. It opens with Redford (as Bryson) hawking his latest volume of rehashes on a Boston morning show, wincing considerably while exchanging laugh-track-dependent quips with the show’s snooty British host. To be fair, the Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman script provides the cast with plenty of wince-worthy moments, including a scene where Nick Nolte claims to be a “panty-ologist” that could be used as abstinence education.
Bryson needs a new challenge, and so he determines to hike the 2,000-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail, all the way from Georgia to Maine, despite his general lack of hiking experience (cue obligatory REI product placement). Bryson’s worried wife (Emma Thompson, transcending this garbage, as she does) insists that he bring a hiking companion, and when everyone else turns him down, his estranged and overlooked ex-travel buddy Stephen (Nolte) re-emerges and offers to come along.
The pitch meeting must have been a nightmare—“It’s like … they’ve traveled the whole world, but they’ve never really found themselves … it’s The Bucket List goes Wild … it’s The Best Exotic Marigold Campsite … it’s Butch Crotchety and the Sundance Grandpa!”—and yet the film is not without its intermittent charms, and eventually hits its own version of a stride. The incomparable Kristen Schaal shows up as a pretentious hiker, just long enough to make me wish that she’d been cast as the lead in Wild instead of Reese Witherspoon.
Still, the script is almost shockingly unfunny, and all attempts at substance fall flat. A Walk in the Woods hits a succession of depressingly expected notes, right down to the pouring-out-the-booze-on-the-mountainside-because-you-don’t-need-it-anymore-because-hiking moment. It borrows the nature-as-therapy conceit of Wild, but mostly uses it as a springboard for body-double pratfalls and pandering vulgarity.
Redford succumbs to the dreck, literally at one point, but Nolte keeps it real. What choice does he have? There’s not enough CGI in the world, and besides, his wind-beaten ramshackleness and smashed-cornet squeal of a voice are the film’s only finger holds on authenticity. A Walk in the Woods may be little more than a collection of lowbrow hijinks, but Nolte’s image becomes a riveting documentary on the debilitating effects of the Hollywood spanking line. He’s a shot of cold, hard reality in a film that possesses all the depth of a postcard.