In his book A Walk in the Woods, humorist and travel writer Bill Bryson amusingly chronicled his hike of the Appalachian Trail with a wayward college buddy, finding a unique and entertaining way to reconnect with a country he’d left 20 years earlier. In Ken Kwapis’ movie version, the trail remains, as do Bryson and his pal Katz and their squabbling, brotherly banter. But too much of the breezy humor that made the book a delight is stripped away, replaced with predictable jokes and broad slapstick, sitcom-quality encounters with women and bears and a pushy, grating sentimentality.
Bryson, 63, published A Walk in the Woods in 1998, when he was a lot younger than the guy playing him now (Robert Redford, 79, who’s also a co-producer — he originally planned to make the film with the late Paul Newman). Nick Nolte, 74, plays Katz, the reprobate buddy who is the only friend to sign on for Bryson’s months-long project. Deploying a Grumpy Old Men vibe makes a certain amount of sense, and the film uses its casting to reinvent the story, shifting its themes to focus on the joys to be had with an old and undervalued friend and raging against the dying of the light. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, and older audiences will undoubtedly savor watching these two old pros chat, argue and bond again.
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But despite the gorgeous scenery and a few mildly comic moments, the film provides little sense of what such a monumental hike is really like. At one point, Bryson and Katz tumble off the trail onto a ledge and can find no way to get back up. When help finally comes along, we never see how they’re rescued (how did two young guys haul slobby, overweight Katz up that steep incline?).
Every now and then Redford-as-Bryson throws out a fact or two about nature — the way the American chestnut trees died, for example — but Kwapis (He’s Just Not That Into You, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) is more concerned with tiresome gags, like Katz struggling through a motel window to escape an enraged husband. Emma Thompson (as Bryson’s skeptical wife, a role for which she is far too young) and Mary Steenburgen (as a completely unnecessary potential romantic interest) are predictably underused, and even the reliably funny Kristen Schaal as an obnoxious hiker suffers because the character she’s playing is so contrived. Take this walk in the woods if you must, but don’t forget to pack a great deal of patience.
Cast: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Kristen Schaal, Nick Offerman.
Director: Ken Kwapis.
Screenwriters: Rick Kerb, Bill Holderman, Michael Arndt. Based on the book by Bill Bryson.
A Broad Green Pictures release. Running time: 104 minutes. Language and some sexual references. Playing at: area theaters.