After the success of the movie version of Wild, it seems inevitable that someone would make a film of A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, an account by journalist Bill Bryson of his attempt to hike the 2,100 miles of the wilderness trail that runs from Georgia to Maine. The film, simply called A Walk in the Woods, is for those viewers who found Wild too wild and wished it could have been tamed.
It begins with Bill, a grandfather of three living in semi-retirement with his British wife (Emma Thompson), returning home from a friend’s funeral to find the trail running near his house in New Hampshire. Some cursory internet research gives him the idea to take this long walk despite his age and lack of hiking experience. When his wife insists that he take a traveling companion, he discovers that the only person willing to go with him on the arduous journey is Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), a friend from his Iowa hometown whom he lost touch with after they backpacked through Europe in their younger days. Bill is a model of fitness next to Stephen, a recovering alcoholic with two bad knees and a proneness to diabetic seizures.
Veteran director Ken Kwapis plays this mostly as a series of sitcom-like episodes, which would be fine if the punchlines by first-time screenwriters Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman weren’t so easy to see coming. Supporting actors are shuttled in and out before we know it. Kristen Schaal gets a shrill part as a know-it-all hiker, while Nick Offerman has even less to do as a camping-gear salesman. Mary Steenburgen’s part as a flirtatious motel owner is unceremoniously cut short. The only rewarding bit is when Stephen picks up a large woman (Susan McPhail) at a Laundromat, though that leads to some unwelcome fat jokes from the writers.
That latter scene is good to have anyway, because it reminds us that Nolte, one of America’s most dynamic actors in the 1980s and early ’90s, hasn’t had a truly memorable role since 2002’s The Good Thief. He and Redford make an agreeable comedy team, and they’re framed against some spectacular scenery along the trail that Kwapis and his second unit almost can’t help but find. The best part of A Walk in the Woods comes late, when Bill and Stephen fall off a narrow mountain pass onto a ledge some 15 feet below the trail. After some slapstick in which the two men fruitlessly try to get back up to the road and a shot paying homage to Redford’s 1969 hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the scene subsides into a quiet moment when the two men look up at the nighttime sky and seem to find their place in the universe. The calm grace of this scene contrasts sharply with the rest of the movie, and if it were the whole reason why the film was made, that would be a pretty good reason.
[box_info]A Walk in the Woods
Starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. Directed by Ken Kwapis. Written by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, based on Bill Bryson’s book. Rated R.[/box_info]