Mark Reviews Movies

A Walk in the Woods

A WALK IN THE WOODS

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ken Kwapis

Cast: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Kristen Schaal, R. Keith Harris, Nick Offerman, Randall Newsome

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some sexual references)

Running Time: 1:44

Release Date: 9/2/15


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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 2, 2015

A Walk in the Woods is a comedy about two old men who are not yet prepared to admit that they are no longer young men. They know it, of course, and an attempt to hike the nearly 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine only solidifies that knowledge. Knowing something to be true and admitting that thing to be true are two completely different states of mind.

It's stubbornness, and these two are very stubborn men. They will not succumb to inevitable defeat, even though one of them realizes that their expedition is doomed for failure around a quarter mile from the start of the trail. As soon as you ask how far you've walked, you have essentially announced that you are tired of walking, and whenever you do ask how far you've walked, you are bound to be disappointed with the answer. This man is very tired of walking and very disappointed.. In his defense, the hike until that point has been uphill. Everything else that could be cited in his defense, though, could also be used to point out why he shouldn't have gone on this hike in the first place.

This man's companion, who came up with idea for the hike, is better suited to such a venture. He's Bill Bryson (Robert Redford), a travel writer who lived in England for an extended period and has since moved back to the United States. He has a wife named Catherine (Emma Thompson), who is the reason for that lengthy stay across the pond, and they have a couple of grown kids and some grandchildren, too. They have a fine home in New Hampshire.

There are two things that prompt Bill's decision to tackle the trail: a hilariously disastrous television interview (After Bill jokes that writers either drink themselves to death or commit a more direct form of suicide, the interviewer, gamely played by Randall Newsome, asks, "Which one will it be for you?") and a friend's funeral. While on a talk to gather his thoughts, Bill notes a sign for the famed, beauteous trail.

He comes home and tries pitching his old tent in the backyard. Catherine responds by giving him a file folder filled with news stories associated with the trail: bear attacks, deadly diseases, and a decomposing body that took quite some time for anyone to discover. None of Bill's friends or acquaintances wants to hike the trail with him, but Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), who toured Europe with Bill for one his books, hears about the plan through the grapevine.

He wants to tag along for the long walk, and he insists that he's in shape. When he steps off the plane, Stephen looks quite, well, purple and walks with a limp on account of a bum knee (The other one is a replacement). He really believes he's in shape, though.

This, then, is basically a road trip movie in which two mismatched men who grow to be irritated with and then to understand each other a little better through their shared experience. The experience, of course, is a series of misadventures and mishaps, involving an overzealous hiker (played by Kristen Schaal), a lot of natural obstacles, a pair of bears, and a few stumbles.

There are also a couple moments in which the men are more honest with each other than they've probably been with anyone else in some time. That's especially true of Stephen, who still lives in Des Moines—where he and Bill grew up—and clearly doesn't have anyone in his life to tell him that trying to hike the Appalachian Trail—at his age and in his present condition—is a really bad idea. He's a recovering alcoholic who keeps a bottle of whiskey in his backpack—as a reminder and just in case.

Bill is the straitlaced one of the duo. He's a family man who has never strayed and doesn't even seem tempted by the attention of a motel/restaurant manager (played by Mary Steenburgen). He has, as Stephen says, the "perfect" life. Neither of these performances is too special individually, but Redford and Nolte playing off each other while using those archetypes is consistently amusing, even as the screenplay (written by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, adapted from Bryson's book) starts to feel like a long trek to nowhere special. We know most—as in, close to all—of the notes this material will hit. That it gets to those points through humor keeps the movie from becoming maudlin, although that also means it often feels as if the movie is holding back on what's really at stake here.

The real Bryson set out on the Appalachian Trail in his mid-to-late 40s. Redford just turned 79, and Nolte is 74. Maybe that is what seems a little off about A Walk in the Woods. The decades matter here. The trail will be the same for a man approaching 50 and a man about to enter his ninth decade, but what those men bring to and what they take from that trail are entirely different matters. The movie sees the trek as little more than a fun jaunt for men of any age, while imagining the concerns of those men are interchangeable.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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