Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) is a successful travel writer living, for the past ten years, in New Hampshire with his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson). Following the funeral of a friend, Bill takes a walk and falls upon an entrance to the Appalachian Trail. It is an epiphany for the writer and he seeks someone to join him for “A Walk in the Woods.”
Bill goes through his entire phone list to find a partner for the 2118 mile journey from Georgia to Maine but only gets polite refusals or declarations that he is crazy. Catherine refuses to let him hike the Trail alone and it looks like his plan has fallen through until he gets a call from a former old friend, Steve Katz (Nick Nolte), who is eager to take the walk. He says he is in shape for the difficult journey but Bill and Catherine are not quite so sure when the overweight, wheezing Steve arrives.
Bill, still against Catherine’s wishes, buys the requisite hiking and camping gear, kisses her goodbye and the two polar opposite head off on their adventure. On the Trail, they meet an assortment of characters, including a non-stop talking hiker named Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal) who is critical of everything the two men do. The time the three spend together makes for some of the film’s funniest moments, especially when they try to get away from the chatty Cathy.
Ken Kwapis directs the adaptation, by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, of Bill Bryson’s memoir of the same name. Bryson was 44 years old, as was Katz, when he attempted the arduous trek, making Robert Redford and Nick Nolte far too old to make the hike believable – you must suspend disbelief a lot while watching “A Walk in the Woods.” But, the two actors make the best of a labored script. As they walk, Bill tells Steve the history of the Trail and the country. They face difficult terrain, a couple of Grizzly bears – another comic moment – and a snow storm. The chemistry between the two actors helps to make the clunky screenplay somewhat entertaining.
The summer blockbuster season is winding down and the films hoping for awards at year’s end are yet to come out. This puts “A Walk in the Woods” at an advantage with few films hitting the big screen. The star power of Redford and Nolte will attract older audiences, though I’m not so sure for the under 40 audience. I give it a C+.
After a morning chat show interview with an accusatory agenda and the death of a friend, humor/travelogue writer Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) is inspired by a stroll around his New Hampshire neighborhood. His wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) thinks he's insane to even consider taking on the 2,180 miles of the Appalachian Trail at his age and his friends think so too. Then he gets a call from Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), an old carousing buddy who stills owes him $600 from forty years ago and the two agree to take "A Walk in the Woods."
Two acting legends do what they can to inject some life into an episodic comedy/character piece but are undermined at almost every turn by director Ken Kwapis ("Licensed to Wed," Big Miracle"), who shoots their nature hike mostly in close up and leaves most scenes to trail off into the ether. As the derelict former boozer trying to keep two steps ahead of the law, Nolte is the reason to see the film, Redford's priggish foil less sympathetic. This geriatric comedy is no "Wild," nor even a "Last Vegas."
Bryson's clearly had a successful life as a well known author with a wife he adores, but perhaps he's become a little too settled. After hearing from Katz, who he clearly parted ways with under less than ideal circumstances, Bill's committed, gearing up at the local REI with advice from store clerk Dave (Nick Offerman, perfectly typecast, wonderfully droll). When Katz arrives, he's in far worse physical shape than Bill and the old horndog's scandalous stories of their past exploits both amuse and alarm the Bryson clan.
The duo set off from Georgia's Springer Mountain with Katz out of breath 1/4 mile in, but they eventually find their stride. They meet up with then ditch the annoying Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal), refuse the help of two young studs crossing a stream (where they fall in, of course, only to meet up with the same two later under direr circumstances) and have a comical encounter with two grizzlies and a K-Mart. Katz, who lusted after the rotund waitress at their starting point (he only requires 'a pulse and four intact limbs,' to which Bryson responds that his standards have gone up), gets into hot water making a date with Beulah (Susan McPhail, the upcoming "Mississippi Grind"), who neglected to mention her even larger husband. Back at the Elderbrook Motel, the lonely proprietress Jeannie (Mary Steenburgen) has eyes for Bill. When June rolls around and they realize they haven't even made it to the halfway mark after an April start, Katz almost convinces Bill to rent a car, but although they slog forward, eventually Bill realizes he just misses his wife too much.
Writers Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman adapt Bryson's book in seeming fits and starts, a this happens then cut to the next episode, Steenburgen's story the most egregiously abandoned (and the 'comedy' involving her dementia-addled mother in questionable taste). There is the third act confession, in which Katz talks about the reason for his stashed bottle of bourbon, and the point about resuscitating old friendships is certainly made, but the film is little more than a series of odd couple skits with a few natural history speeches thrown in.
Director of photography John Bailey ("Groundhog Day," Big Miracle"), who shot on 35mm, gets maybe three grand vista shots in the entire film, the rest looking as if framed for television. A tumble down a cliff side is patently fake looking as is the ledge where the two old hikers land.
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