After battling the high seas in 2013’s All is Lost, and threatening all the president’s supermen in last year’s Captain America: Winter Soldier, Robert Redford would seem more than deserving of a little down time. For the prolific actor, producer, and festival head, taking a break meant finally filming passion project A Walk in the Woods, an adaptation of Bill Bryson’s 1998 travelogue memoir. And while a movie about hiking 2,200 miles along the Appalachian Trail sounds anything but restful, A Walk in the Woods proves to be as taxing and eventful as an afternoon nap.
The book provides a presumably loose map for screenwriters Bill Holderman and Michael Arndt (nom de plum Rick Kerb) to follow. The real Bryson trekked through America’s northeast while still in his ‘40s; the Bryson played by Redford is a septuagenarian. Few would argue that the 79-year-old Redford has aged poorly, but the challenge Bryson set out to conquer (a small percent of hikers manage to complete the months-long trail) makes the age of A Walk in the Woods’s star a sticking point. Rather than ignoring any infirmity issues that might keep national treasures from exploring a natural one, director Ken Kwapis uses the mileage on his leads for the comedy equivalent of a senior’s discount.
There’s some lightly peppered messaging about inner improvement through outdoor experience in A Walk in the Woods, but it’s not a Hike-Your-Way-to-a-Better-You of the kind that Wild offered last year. It’s not even a Last Vegas, Bucket List-style ego exercise, which at least saves Redford, and co-star Nick Nolte most of the indignities that are required when old hands have to prove “they’ve still got it.” But what exactly A Walk in the Woods wants to be or say is about as clear to the viewer as Bryson’s motivation for starting his journey in the first place. More than anything, it just seems like a nice way to pass the time.
The early goings suggest there will be a couple dramatic bumps in the road ahead. Gathering dust in New Hampshire after a successful writing career abroad, Bryson must first convince his wife to let him follow a spontaneous bout of wanderlust. As played by Emma Thompson, Mrs. Bryson’s naysaying isn’t just funny, but so completely sensible that it just makes Bryson’s thin reasoning for the expedition that much more confusing. One wonders if a livelier picture could have emerged from finding out what Mrs. Bryson did with the house to herself for a few months.
In any event, Bryson finds a partner for the long haul in Nolte’s Stephen Katz, a pickled coot who Bryson shared a few adventures with back before the Carter administration. Katz’ alcoholism, and Bryson’s general distaste for him, again, look to be points of future conflict to come. But A Walk in the Woods is positively benign in its unwillingness ruffle, offend, or discomfort in any way. Over 104 meandering minutes up mountains and down valleys, the dramatic trajectory stays smooth as the Salt Flats.
As Bryson and Katz make their way along the trail, characters and situations appear that make for the sort of incidental asides you’d reserve for the margins of a postcard. An obnoxious fellow hiker (Kristen Schaal, naturally) threatens the guys with annoying company, while Mary Steenburgen pops up for a few minutes so Redford has someone to make eyes at. Even when the adventurers find themselves face to face with a pair of black bears, A Walk in the Woods can’t seem to raise the energy for anything more than a little broad prop comedy.
Granted, the real draw here isn’t the great outdoors – you’ll know that the first time you witness some of the movie’s breathtakingly fake digital backgrounds. Working a traveling talk show routine, Redford is the clever host encouraging Nolte to blurt out whatever’s on his mind, the latter’s colourful musings on life, women, and love being chiefly responsible for the movie’s laughable R-rating (Nolte flirting with a woman while rescuing her undergarments from a washing machine is more awkward than salacious). There’s a lot of sass and not much great wisdom to be found in the banter between co-stars, even when A Walk in the Woods tries to verbally wend its way towards something resembling a climax.
The back-and-forth is always warm and mostly good-humored; Redford and Nolte as actors, not their characters, are company to be enjoyed. Ditto goes for Nick Offerman, briefly appearing here as an REI employee selling camping supplies (The Recreational Industrial Complex has its hooks in A Walk in the Woods, same as Wild). The right names can’t make soft material suddenly sharp, but at least their voices are nice to listen to. Too bad pleasant speech and soothing nature sounds alone are the stuff of sleep therapy machines, not movies. You can’t be too hurt by A Walk in the Woods only aspiring towards simple niceness, but as Sondheim mused in last year’s arboreal star vehicle, nice is different than good.
A Walk in the Woods takes only minimal effort to watch, and leaves you with nothing much worth remembering.