A Walk in the Woods has too many raisins in its trail mix.
Take a Hike
R for language and some sexual references
The story’s based on a 1998 memoir by Bill Bryson that also carried the subtitle “Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Travel.”
Huh. Actually, the movie must be based on some sort of watered down, after-market Cliffs Notes knock-off edition of the book, the kind of shoddy study guide that leaves out all the important stuff, because there’s precious little discovery — or rediscovery — going on here.
What makes this hike watchable is the star power of 79-year-old Robert Redford (The Natural) as Bryson and 74-year-old Nick Nolte (The Good Thief) as Bryson’s pal Stephen Katz.
And even then, a large part of the entertainment factor comes from wondering if Nick Nolte will survive — not as in completing a hike of the Appalachian Trail, but simply make it from one scene to the next. Sure, he’s a talented actor. But Nolte is now one haggard grizzly man; he’s not the picture of good health and at times his scratchy voice practically needs subtitles to be understood.
The setup is Bill and Stephen had backpacked around Europe together decades ago. They didn’t really like each other when they started traveling and things only went downhill from there. The two hadn’t spoken in ages, but Stephen found out about Bill’s hiking plans through the grapevine and turned out to be the only friend — or the rough equivalent thereof — to take Bill up on his offer of hiking companionship.
The Redford Whisperer
There are some laughs littering the trail. Trouble is the screenplay is from a pair of freshman scribes, Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, who don’t seem to know how to pack Bryson’s wit and move it onto the screen. At least Holderman’s collaborated with Redford on a few projects, including The Conspirator and the underrated The Company You Keep.
That leaves Redford and Notle hiking around with clearly empty (as in light, foam-filled) backpacks. The packs are thrown around and hoisted on their backs like they contain nothing of any weight, which is certainly some sort of metaphor for the empty screenplay.
The end result is a bunch of unimpressive, generic humor with a heavy dose of unexpected septuagenarian raunch that earns an “R” as a warning to those who’d expect better from Redford. The jokes too often play all too awkwardly, and too much of the action takes place off the trail. Yeah, this not-so-dynamic duo pretty quickly take a detour to a restaurant, then spend time navigating between a laundromat and a Kmart. And then there’s a motel and some sort of non-event romantic tension between Bryson and the motel manager, played by Mary Steenburgen (Time After Time).
During that laundromat incident, Stephen hits on a triple-plus size woman. He calls himself a “pantyologist” as he tries to help her pull a snagged pair of panties out of the washer. Nasty. On many levels. And not even a good nasty.
The End of the Hike
This is the second movie, on the heels of The End of the Tour, featuring a famed author, that does absolutely nothing to instill a desire to seek out said author’s work.
Spurred on by the death of a friend and a testy TV interview, Bryson also finds inspiration in the arguments that A) he’s too old and B) only 10% of the 2,000 or so people who attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail each year actually complete it. Bryson thinks the odds are favorable compared to the number of people who start writing a book and never finish it.
While Stephen takes the hike as an opportunity to deal with his inner demons (including alcoholism and that taste for women with more junk in their trunk than he has in his backpack), Bill spouts off an occasional geology lesson while surrounded by the gorgeous Georgia countryside. There’s also a wee (very wee) bit of history, but Bill — a man who at one point admits he hates talking to people — doesn’t have much to say.
Stephen is quick to rent a four-wheel drive truck. Bill is quick to start missing his wife. They go home.
A New York Times bestseller is born. Yawn.
For some reason, Stephen keeps needling Bill about how he should include this or that little incident in his next book. Bill, who up to that point had written loads about his foreign travels, had never written about his homeland. He supposedly had no intentions of writing a book about his hike until after he got home. Huh. Well. Based on this movie, he should’ve kept it that way.