Movie review: ‘A Walk in the Woods’ laughs through the danger
A WALK IN THE WOODS
Directed by Ken Kwapis
Starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Kristen Schaal, Nick Offerman, Mary Steenburgen
Rated R, Comedy, Drama, 104 minutes
Based on the 1998 book by travel writer Bill Bryson, Robert Redford’s passion project “A Walk in the Woods” took 10 years to develop while he sought funding. Now 79, Redford reframes 44-year-old Bryson’s account of his Appalachian Trail hiking experience with a friend to fit a pair of elderly curmudgeons.
Redford co-stars with Nick Nolte, 74, in a screenplay depicting a duo that unexpectedly benefits from one another’s vastly different life strategies.
In the film, American Bryson (Redford) is a beloved grandfather whose 40-year marriage to British nurse Catherine (Emma Thompson) succeeds in part because she possesses the common sense Bill lacks.
One evening Catherine is baffled to find Bill erecting his 50-year-old, one-man tent in the backyard and announcing plans to hike 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Catherine becomes apoplectic when Bill refuses to listen to reason, so she immediately begins strategizing. In short order articles detailing murders, bear attacks, killer bacteria and accidents along the trail begin materializing in Bill’s office. At the bottom of the stack, Catherine’s sticky note states, “You’re NOT going alone!”
Persuaded by this point Bill begins calling every male friend in his Rolodex, including many he hasn’t spoken to in a long time. At least one has died in the interim. Responses range from “Are you kidding?” to “You gotta be outta your mind.” Then Bill receives a phone call from Katz (Nolte), an old frenemy from his single days, whose number Bill long ago jettisoned. Katz, still the same carefree rabble rouser he always was, volunteers to hike with Bill.
Along with the film’s inherent pleasures, including the two leads playing versions of themselves, and drop-dead gorgeous scenery, the culture that surrounds hiking the Appalachian Trail is amusing. While Katz has yet to settle down or give up chasing tail, Bryson’s ability to live in the moment was lost long ago, although it returns when he confronts his mortality on more than one occasion.
Some critics complain there isn’t enough at stake. I disagree. During the hike each man’s view of his life and the world around him is shaken at its very foundation.
I believe critics are picking up the film’s failure to differentiate between its adventure segments and those that are dramatic or comic. By attempting to incorporate comedy into every sequence, we are never in fear of the outcome, even on the occasions the pair is in real trouble.
It’s great to make us laugh, but there are time when it’s best to allow us to identify with the characters’ fear.