A Walk in the Woods is the kind of movie you always hope to find on a Sunday afternoon when you’re out with your folks and they want to go see a movie. With its cast of Hollywood icons, a clever script that generally plays to expectations, and lots of humor that neatly skirts the line between bawdy and profane, it’s a light, entertaining 104 minutes that certainly won’t enter your top 10 movie experiences of the year, but won’t end up being time and money you regret spending at the movies, either.
After attending a funeral for a family friend, travel book author Bill Bryson (Robert Redford), whose many works detailed journeys in dozens of different countries and exotic locales, makes a somewhat impromptu decision to tackle a uniquely American journey — the over-2,100 mile long Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine. As one might imagine, the decision proves very alarming to Bill’s wife Catherine (Emma Thompson), who upon failing to dissuade Bill from undertaking a hike that thousands of hikers in top physical condition attempt each year and roughly only 10% actually finish insists that he at least not try to go it alone.
Finding a willing traveling companion for the trip proves difficult, however, until Bill gets a call from Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), an old friend from Bill’s youth in Iowa. Katz eagerly offers to join Bill on the hike, which is certainly surprising because a) prior to the call the two hadn’t spoken in decades; and b) the Katz Bill remembers was a raging alcoholic and philanderer who never once expressed an interest in traveling anywhere further than the neighborhood bar, much less into the wilderness. But with no other options and Catherine adamant, Bill accepts, and the following April the two begin their arduous northward from Springer Mountain, Georgia.
Its not long after that, of course, that things start to go awry. Detours, obnoxious know-it-all fellow hikers on the trail, inclement weather, gulag-like bunkhouses, hungry bears, and their own lack of physical conditioning are a just a few of the elements of misadventure that Bill and Katz find themselves forced to reckon with as they trudge step after step, mile after mile. On top of all that, they’ll have to deal with the invisible elephant in both their travel packs: the reasons why they fell out all those years ago, why the hell they’re both out there in the woods in the first place, and whether or not they can truly be the friends they were once again.
Based on the 1998 book by the real life Bill Bryson, “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail”, the film A Walk in the Woods was originally envisioned by Redford (one of the film’s producers) years ago as a film he could do with his old friend, the late Paul Newman. While it may be fun to imagine what that film might have looked like, with Butch and Sundance reunited as old, out-of-shape guys trying to tackle an impossible journey that’s mostly in the middle of nowhere, it turns out that Nick Nolte is more than equal to the task of playing the disheveled and rascally Katz opposite Redford’s glib, straight-laced take on Bryson. Nolte gets the lions’ share of the laughs here, as Katz is clearly the less prepared and physically capable of the two to handle the trail, plus he’s the more inclined toward looking for trouble in order to make the pain of the trip worthwhile. In some instances, Nolte just delivering his lines is outright funny, as the man’s voice at this point isn’t just gravelly — it’s gravel, period.
Nolte doesn’t get all the funniest moments in the film, though. As Catherine, Emma Thompson gets plenty of good zingers in as she brings all her innate British practicality to bear on Bill’s chosen folly, but because it’s Emma Thompson and she’s so very good at her craft, the genuine affection and concern belying all the jokes is clear, palpable, and relatable. And director Ken Kwapnis (He’s Just Not That Into You, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), who in addition to his film directing work is well known for his part in adapting “The Office” for American TV, shows his skill with staging comedy as well as and managing talent throughout the film, so that everyone in the ensemble has an opportunity to get in on the fun. Kwapnis also delivers, with the help of cinematographer John Bailey (Big Miracle) some truly striking visuals of the Great Smoky Mountains and portions of the Appalachian Trail itself, giving the film a true “travelogue” feel.
If there are any negatives to be found in A Walk in the Woods, they’re due, in part, to the nature of the source material itself. The film at times feels episodic, like a collection of funny stories about a trip rather than a cohesive narrative, but that’s often what good travelogues are. Also, not all the gags and quips work — most of them do, but more than a few fall flat, which is a curious thing to say when just about everyone involved in this production is well versed in crafting and delivering this kind of irony-driven, grown-up humor. There isn’t a whole lot of depth here, either — nobody in this cast is doing any heavy lifting as far as dramatic performance is concerned, and so you’re not likely to hear this film mentioned when awards season rolls around. But these “faults” are all easily forgivable if all you’re looking for is a fun way to spend a few hours at the movies without having to deal with explosions, car chases, and blood and guts. Thanks to a very likable cast, this is a very likable film, one that should leave you smiling and talking about the funnier moments while on your way out the door.
You may even leave the film with a hankering to take a little nature walk yourself. If that is the case, though, just do your homework and know what you’re getting into first.
A Walk in the Woods
Starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Kristen Schaal, Nick Offerman with Mary Steenburgen and Emma Thompson. Directed by Ken Kwapis.
Running Time: 104 minutes
Rated R for language and some sexual references.