Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Ken Kwapis
Stars: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Nick Offerman, Kristen Schaal, Mary Steenbergen.
We have had several films recently in which characters have hiked some challenging paths in order to find solace, comfort or redemption. There was Emile Hirsch as the doomed Christopher McCandless in Sean Penn’s Into The Wild, Martin Sheen as a grieving father walking the Santiago de Compostela trail in memory of his dead son in The Way, and Reese Witherspoon hiked the Pacific Coast Trail in Wild. Now we get two older men hiking the Appalachian Trail for the adventure and sense of accomplishment it will give them.
But rather than an insightful exploration of male friendship or midlife crises, this genial film comes across more as a buddy comedy that plays like Grumpy Old Men in the wild.
A Walk In The Woods is based on the bestselling 1998 travelogue book written by noted travel writer Bill Bryson (played here by Robert Redford), who has spent years journeying throughout the world and writing about his experiences. Returning to America after having spent two decades based in Europe, he decides that the best way to reconnect with his homeland is to hike the epic 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine along America’s east coast. But Bryson’s patient and long suffering wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) is not so sure he is up to the task and initially tries to discourage him by printing off stories about bear attacks and the like. Eventually she realises his determination.
But Catherine won’t allow him to make the journey alone; she insists that he find someone to accompany him. All of Bryson’s friends though understandably decline the offer. The only person who agrees to come along for the adventure is Stephen Katz (played here by Nick Nolte), Bryson’s former best friend with whom he spent plenty of time travelling around Europe four decades earlier before they lost touch. Katz heard about Bryson’s plans from a mutual friend.
But when Katz arrives, it is obvious that he is not in the best of health or physical shape for the long walk. And unlike Bryson, his life has been anything but easy in the intervening years. The prickly relationship adds plenty of humour and tension to the journey as the two men quarrel, but also slowly reestablish that bond of friendship. But it is the easy going banter between the two that keeps the film moving along at a genial pace.
Redford has a warm and engaging presence and although he is a bit more laid back here, he allows himself to play some rare physical comedy. When Redford purchased the rights to Bryson’s novel he intended for his friend the late Paul Newman (whom he appeared opposite in both the classic buddy western Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and the Oscar winning conman movie The Sting) to play the role of Katz. The irascible and gravelly voiced Nolte comprehensively steals the show with his performance as the grizzled, disheveled, overweight, alcoholic and cantankerous Katz. It’s a role that seems tailor made for his screen persona and he gets most of the best lines. It’s easily his best role for quite some time and Nolte grabs the opportunity with gusto.
Thompson makes the most of her small role as Bryson’s wife here, while Kristen Schaal (from The Last Man On Earth, etc) is very good as Mary Ellen, an upbeat, perennially perky but annoying know-it-all fellow hiker the pair briefly encounter. And Mary Steenbergen adds a touch of class to her small role as the lonely proprietor of a hotel.
Director Ken Kwapis is better known for his light weight comedies like Licence To Wed and several episodes of popular tv series like The Office and Malcolm In The Middle, etc. Here he maintains a workmanlike approach to the material and its themes of friendship, self-discovery and midlife crisis. He maintains an unhurried pace throughout that adds to its shambolic charm.
A Walk In The Woods offers some fantastic scenery of the picturesque wilderness, beautifully shot by Kwapis’ regular cinematographer John Bailey. But the movie works mainly because of the easy going chemistry between Redford and Nolte, and the time spent in their company is a pleasant enough experience.