Amid the genuinely terrible movies that come out at the end of summer, came a film starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, and Emma Thompson. With that formidable cast, and a plot that seemed hard to mess up, I was sure that A Walk in the Woods was better than my other options. The movie, however, is a mediocre production and, I suspect, a weak adaptation of Bill Bryson’s book.
In A Walk in the Woods, author Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) is growing restless. After a career of traveling and 20 years living in England, he moved back to America with his family and spent the last 10 years writing intros to books, teaching writing, and feeling his age. He has a respectable, happy life, but he feels the itch to wander. So, naturally, he decides to hike the Appalachian Trail. His wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson), thinks that at his age, hiking the trail could mean death or disaster, so she insists that he find someone to go with him. After calling all of his old buddies, and finding no one willing to go with him, Bryson gets a call from Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), who he traveled around Europe with over thirty years ago. Katz gets on Bryson’s nerves and is in terrible shape, but he is willing to go. The two head off for a last adventure together.
In most regards, A Walk in the Woods is a standard buddy travel comedy. It has a slightly more serious bent to it, courtesy of Bryson’s ethos as an author. Especially in comparison with last year’s Wild, which was so raw and moving, this film is too safe and predictable. It has some funny moments and great lines, but it does not do much that is really interesting. To me, the most original part of the film is that they leave the trail early, rather than keep pressing on as the tropes of adventure movies would dictate.
Throughout their hike, Bryson attempts to engage Katz in conversations about the rocks and the trees along the trail, bringing in some of the environmentalist passages of Bryson’s work. It does more for character development than it does for the tone of the film, but I think these moments hint at potential difficulty of adapting memoir to film. How do you bring out the thoughts and feelings of the author, particularly a first person voice, without doing so in gratuitous voiceover or unrealistic dialogue? I think it was an intelligent move in terms of adaptation, but one that in practice does not quite raise the tone of the journey once it starts fully down the buddy comedy path.
Despite the predictable nature of the story, the characters are still well developed. The film conveys Bryson’s angst without hammering away at it or expressing it in cliched ways. The history between the characters is implied and resonates in their interactions, without a lot of ham-fisted exposition thrown in. The characters carry the tired plot to a certain degree, as they feel like real, experienced people. The performances go a long way in bringing out the character development as well. Robert Redford is wonderful as Bryson. Although the characters of Bryson and Katz are aged by about twenty years compared to Bryson’s memoir, the narrative hangs around Redford’s steady and intelligent performance. Nick Nolte brings the humor to the film, both in his delivery of one-liners and performance of slightly elevated potty humor. Emma Thompson is charming as usual. I just wanted more of her. The chemistry between these three brings out the history of the characters. They work as old friends and as husband and wife.
Overall, A Walk in the Woods was a technically good film. The performances are good. The cinematography is good. The source material is good. All of these good elements, however, are weighed down by the predictable and on-the-nose narrative of the hike. It is a good film, but also an unexciting and forgettable one. I rate it 3/5 stars.
A Walk in the Woods was written by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, and directed by Ken Kwapis. It runs 104 minutes and is rated R for language and some sexual references.