“’A Walk in the Woods’ is a light, fun and satisfying journey” Director: Ken Kwapis
Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen
“Writers retire by drinking ourselves to death or blowing our brains out.”
For aging – but accomplished - writer Bill Bryson (Robert Redford), he sarcastically says this line during a local TV interview when the reporter notes the author has not written a book in four years. Thankfully, after a quick introduction to the man, neither of the aforementioned means to retirement seem the least bit plausible. He lives a happy New Hampshire existence in a big house with his beautiful wife (Emma Thompson) and lovely grandkids close by. On the other hand, after spending time at a funeral and pondering the next big idea, Bill feels stuck in neutral during his “golden years”. For reasons Bill cannot even explain, he – a man in his 70s – suddenly decides to hike the Appalachian Trail, 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine.
While his wife, Catherine (Thompson), believes he lost his mind, Bill simply states, “It’s just something I feel I have to do.”
Fortunately for the movie audience, we are grateful Bill has this near-impossible itch to scratch, as director Ken Kwapis brings Bill Bryson’s book – with a title of the same name – to life on the big screen. Although reminders of working and permanent retirement are in the forefront and back of Bill’s mind, this film is anything but grim. “A Walk in the Woods” is a light and fun story. It stages the traditional road picture in the setting of a legendary countryside trail with the equally legendary Redford guiding us through warm and comedic themes. Kwapis captures many stunning views and looks of swooping and rolling valleys amongst the smaller moments of simple woodsy strolls, and all in the heart of Americana. This film uses a similar, scenic-adventure narrative as a pair of recent movies, 2010’s “The Way” and 2014’s “Land Ho!” These earlier movies seem to do a better job at capturing more “aha” moments than “A Walk in the Woods”, but admittedly, it is probably due to the 2010 and 2014 films are set in Europe. Seeing the Spanish coastline and wild Icelandic topography stirs – at least to this moviegoer - more curiosity and awe because of their alien natures.
On the comedic-side, Bill’s “frenemy” from four decades ago tags along on this monumental hike for slapstick moments and verbal banter. Stephen (Nick Nolte) is – predictably – Bill’s polar opposite. With a lifetime of alcoholism and arrested development, the years have not been kind to Stephen. Very out-of-shape (both mentally and physically), his hair knotted in an unkempt mess and his face looking like it will explode from exhaustion, Stephen does not give the impression that he can hike one quarter of a mile, let alone 2,100. In fact, both men stop to catch their breath after their first (uphill) quarter of a mile, while the movie audience laughs and wonders: Will this film run five hours because of rest breaks?
Even though the overall story arc and individual funny and heartwarming sequences lean towards a predictable bend, the writing of the individual conversations and tongue-and-cheek exchanges are spot-on, quick-witted and highly entertaining. Redford and Nolte bring acres of charisma to the screen and deliver their “close quarters” interchanges with impeccable timing and to riotous effect. Some of their environmental pitfalls occasionally do feel forced and bit engineered, but much of the joy of this movie is watching two longtime experts in front of the camera navigate through sticky circumstances. Not unlike “Grumpy Old Men” (1993) with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, the entire film carries an enjoyable feel. In Redford’s and Nolte’s golden years, their characters may or may not make their entire 2,100 mile journey, but their performances will bring lots of smiles to your face and provide a bounce in your step. (3/4 stars)