More than 15 years in the making, “A Walk in the Woods” is an entertaining and enjoyable film, if a formulaic one.
Adapted by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman from the book by Bill Bryson, the story chronicles the decision by Bryson (played by Robert Redford) to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. But veteran TV director Ken Kwapis (whose filmography includes such dross as “The Beautician and the Beast” and “Licensed to Wed”) doesn’t trust the material enough not to infuse it with sit-com timing.
Make no mistake: Bryson’s book is very funny, full of wonderful one-liners and caustic observations about everything from the U.S. Parks Service to the generally cavalier way most people treat wilderness areas and the creeping destruction of urban sprawl.
But the script returns time and again to the sit-com template: Look at these funny old guys struggling in the wilderness. Put a stream in front of them and you can bet they’ll fall in.
There is little of Bryson’s sense of discovery or awe at what he’s seeing. Partnered with an old friend named Stephen Katz (played by a florid-faced Nick Nolte), Bryson makes discoveries about himself and his quest (at least he does in the book) that rarely find their way into the film.
The setup is fairly simple: An American travel writer who has spent a couple decades living in Great Britain, Bryson has relocated to New England and decides it’s time to learn something about his own country. During a walk, he stumbles across a section of the AT practically in his own backyard — and hits on the idea of walking it. Where Cheryl Strayed chose to hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself as a kind of meditative self-cleansing in “Wild,” Bryson simply digs the idea of exploring this monumental piece of wilderness.
But he knows he needs a partner for this endeavor. In part, he seeks company because it seems like a lonely endeavor on his own. But he’s also intimidated by his wife (Emma Thompson), who uses the Internet to cull stories about horrible accidents and animal attacks on the AT.
Katz isn’t his first choice; the two aren’t close and Katz isn’t even on Bryson’s list of potential hiking partners. But Katz gets wind of the trip and calls Bryson — who hasn’t been able to interest anyone else.
Where Bryson (as embodied by the 79-year-old Redford) is a trim, fit guy, Katz is a bit of a mess: overweight, out of shape, with a drinking problem that he claims to have under control. They are an odd couple who learn to appreciate each other’s quirks and flaws, banding together to pull each other through.
Redford and Nolte were both movie heartthrobs in the 1970s who are now in their 70s themselves. Redford, who looks younger than the 73-year-old Nolte, still has a way with a one-liner and has a lot to work with. Nolte, beefy and bloated-looking, finds the rascal in Katz, as well as the disappointment he feels in himself. They’re funny together, rising above the mundane direction and by-the-numbers writing. Indeed, they are the reason to see “A Walk in the Woods.”
Despite its flaws, it’s a film with a point to make and laughs to be had. There are many worse films you could see.