“There was another mountain? How many mountains do you need to see?” - Stephen Katz in “A Walk in the Woods.”
“A Walk in the Woods” stars Robert Redford and Nick Nolte as estranged friends who try to walk the Appalachian Trail, an approximately 2,200 mile jaunt from Georgia to Maine. That might seem doable until you remember Redford is 79 years old and Nolte 74. Bill Bryon and Stephen Katz, whom the actors respectively portray, are no spring chickens, either.
Bill’s wife, Catherine, played with characteristic grace by Emma Thompson, remembers her husband’s age, and initially laughs off the suggestion. When she sees he’s serious, she objects, although not so strongly he’s dissuaded. She does, however, tell him he’s not going alone.
Bill obediently puts the word out that he’s looking for a walking buddy for what will be a long and arduous journey. Stephen hears about the expedition through the grapevine and calls his friend, with whom he had a falling out decades ago during a trip to Europe. Bill reluctantly agrees, and a few scenes later, they’re shrugging on their backpacks and taking the first steps of what everyone they know says will be a journey they’ll never finish.
“A Walk in the Woods” is based on the 1998 memoir by the actual Bill Bryson, who wrote about his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail with an old friend. Redford has been trying to make the movie for over a decade, saying the book made him laugh harder than any other he’s read.
The movie made me laugh, too, mostly because of the one-liners, which are frequent and funny, in a sitcom kind of way. Bill and Stephen also get into a few zany situations along the way. They scare off a pair of bears by standing in their pup tents and screaming, and later escape the enraged husband of a lady Stephen had sweet talked into a romantic rendezvous.
The level of humor in the movie is never above a chuckle or a guffaw, though. Stephen meets the lady at a laundromat when her unmentionables get wrapped around the agitator of a washing machine. “I can’t seem to get my panties off,” she says. “Well, I happen to be a pantyologist,” he says, and then they exchange lustful glances. Ho ho.
In fact, director Ken Kwapis (I’d never heard of him, either) seems intent on keeping the film’s pulse at a moderate rate. Nothing too dangerous or dramatic happens, and Bill and Stephen never really get angry at each other, although they do have a disagreement about quitting. If anything, “A Walk in the Woods” could have used more excitement.
Actually, it could have used a third act, too. While I enjoyed the movie, I was blindsided by the abrupt ending, which undercut any notion that the filmmakers meant to do anything other than make audiences smile for an hour and a half. Was the film about old age swinging defiantly at the ravages of time? Kinda, maybe. Was it about how it’s never too late to renew a lost friendship? Sort of, but not really. Was it a parable about man overcoming nature? Nah. In the end, “A Walk in the Woods” doesn’t add up to much of anything.
But it’s still an occasional joy to watch, due largely to the efforts of its two leads. Redford has always been more of a star than an actor, but when paired with the right material, he can deliver the goods, as he does here. He’s especially effective when paired with a co-star who has gravitas and charisma to spare. Just watch “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” or “The Sting,” two famous Redford-Paul Newman collaborations, to see what I mean. In “A Walk in the Woods,” Nolte brings the spare gravitas and charisma.
In fact, if there’s an overriding reason to see “A Walk in the Woods,” it’s Nolte. His portrayal of Stephen, a rascally, dissheveled, out-of-shape, recovering alcoholic, is perfect. Not only is there a lot of life
and humor in his delivery, but Nolte was able to take a character who might have come across as two-dimensional on the page and give him a third dimension. This was exciting to watch because Nolte has come across as a bit of a gruffian in recent interviews and films. Here, he makes the walk through the woods worth taking.
I hesitate to recommend seeing “A Walk in the Woods” in a theater. While enjoyable, it’s also a bit pedestrian. If you do see it now, you’ll be treated to some beautiful Appalachian photography. If you wait until its available for home viewing, you’ll save a few dollars and still be able to enjoy the pleasure of watching Redford and Nolte have what must have been a lot of fun.
Two and a half stars out of four. Rated R for language and some sexual references.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. He’s also a movie trivia nut, and enjoyed reading that Redford had originally hoped to co-star in it with the now late Newman. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.