Robert Redford has worked on bringing Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods, to the big screen for around a decade now. Redford even managed to get some notable potential collaborators on board at various points during the film’s production history; Richard Linklater and Redford himself were among the people attached to directing at various points, and Toy Story 3‘s Michael Arndt was credited with the screenplay a few years ago. For reasons we can only speculate on, though, many of the higher profile names attached behind the scenes departed, and the people responsible for the final product can’t seem to make this project work.
Redford stars as Bryson, a bestselling travel author whose output has trickled down to writing forwards to other peoples’ books. Reaching a point of restlessness, Bryson decides that he’ll hike the entire Appalachian Trail. When his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) disapproves of his plans, she ultimately tells him he can’t go unaccompanied. After reaching out to a slew of friends with no interest in joining him, Bryson eventually agrees to go with a long-estranged friend, Katz (Nick Nolte). Unfortunately for Bryson, Katz is a recovering alcoholic with one trick knee and one titanium knee, plus a voice so raspy it sounds like Katz may choke on his own words. In spite of Katz’ obvious issues, Bryson’s wife lets him go. For some reason.
Aside from some brief appearances from other actors, including Thompson, A Walk in the Woods is mainly a two-man show, with the two men divided by their approaches to life and what that means for both of them in their twilight years. Bryson is the responsible one; he’s lived in the U.K. and the U.S. for years after settling down with Catherine and starting a family. Katz is his opposite; he’s a largely irresponsible, loose cannon type. Here, though, they’re the type of opposites who largely get along, finding comfort with each other they can’t find with other people.
Unfortunately, the film’s tone works against Redford and Nolte. It’s worth noting that the real-life Bryson was in his 40s when he made his trek on the Appalachian Trail. Redford looks good for his age, but he’s still 79, and Nolte’s not far behind him at 74. Even if their characters are supposed to be younger, these two seem far too old to be going through what basically amounts to midlife crises. And if the film can’t justify making Bryson and Katz older, it definitely can’t decide on what kind of film is being made. The film makes a surprising number of jokes, which range in style, but will randomly switch gears to melodrama.
Some of the jokes are also surprisingly mean, particularly if they involve women. Kristen Schaal pops up as an annoying hiker, and Katz jokes about murdering her. Later, Katz encounters a large woman at a laundromat, and the two seem to hit it off. When he’s telling Bryson about her, though, he refers to her body as beautiful – “buried under 200 pounds of fat.” When the woman’s husband (because, of course) comes after Katz, he complains about the fact that he had to end up in the town with the only other man in the world willing to sleep with someone so fat. Pretty much every female character, for all of the five minutes they may appear in the film, are subjected to similar treatments.
The story isn’t the film’s only problem, though. When it comes to television, director Ken Kwapis has more than proven himself, but his film work is lacking in anything distinctive, and that streak continues here. Maybe it wouldn’t have been quite as big of a deal even a few years back, but a couple of recent films – namely, last year’s Reese Witherspoon-starring Wild and Robert Redford’s own All Is Lost – make A Walk in the Woods look weak in comparison. It’s hardly the only problem with the film, but the direction is a big contributor. A Walk in the Woods may have some viewable moments, but ultimately, those scenes are outweighed by the film’s more notable problems.