Age and experience are tricky things. While one is calculable, the other can remain hard to grasp, elusive and singularly both powerful and meaningless. Both age and experience weigh in The Walk in the Woods, a great outdoors/odd couple comedy-adventure starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, and both weighed on me personally while watching and trying to write about the film. One one hand, empirically I can say it’s not a very good film- the pacing is slack, the tone is inconsistent, the filmmaking inelegant and the script comes across as crass stitching of Grumpy Old Men and Wild. Yet, I can imagine (and this where my age and experience level act against me) that more than a handful of moviegoers will enjoy the flick even if only to luxuriate in watching the Sundance Kid and Jack Cates spar mano a mano.
In the film, Redford portrays esteemed American travel writer Bill Bryson (the film is based on Bryson’s 1998 book of the same name), who at the start of the picture is confronted with a nagging itch to do something, go somewhere, feel less old. The natural solution, of course, is to hike the 22,000 mile, 14-state Appalachian Trail. While his dutiful wife Catherine (a wasted Emma Thompson) thinks this a foolish idea- she humorously even leaves online stories of death on the Trail printed out on his desk- Bryson is unassailable, though he would like some company. After a montage of invites, interloper Stephen Katz (Nolte), a friend/nuisance from another era, offers his companionship on the voyage.
Katz arrives in a fashion likely similar to that of how Marlon Brando sauntered on to the set of Apocalypse Now– overweight, unkempt and barely able to move. It’s a slightly funny gag to start with and Nolte sells every on-the-nose punchline with expert, raspy aplomb. The problem is set very early on though, even before the veteran duo begin their drowsy walk. Nolte’s what-the-hell joie de vivre is never completely compatible with Redford’s buttoned-up refinement. The sub-sitcom dialogue doesn’t help matters, but there’s hardly a sense that any time, even that long ago, that these two characters would ever even be in the same area code as one another. At least Nolte is handed the grace note of a reformed alcoholic (set as a device that motivates the only slightly moving scene in the movie) whereas Redford just kinds sits there, letting his well-aged matinee idol looks do the heavy lifting.
Director Ken Kwapis (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and veteran television director of comedies including Malcolm in the Middle and The Office) seems to stage the movie to the beats of an unheard laugh track, however. What Kwapis and credited screenwriters (Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman) miss is setting a believable stage for why and how this walk in the woods is intended to be meaningful. Bryson is presented as a happy, upper class family man while Katz is mere flaky sidekick- what do these characters gain (outside perhaps of pride) by hiking the Appalachian Trail? What are they looking for by doing it? The answers are never examined, though Bryson has a fondness for rocks. Unlike in Wild, a riveting, soul-searching mediation-through-walking movie which starred Reese Witherspoon, A Walk in the Woods is further stymied because its staged so broadly that grander, more refined redemptive factors to this hike are buried beneath a million miles of predictable old man jokes and casual misogyny.
The old man jokes are expected and genial enough for the most part; a recurring gag finds Bryson and Katz intimidated throughout their journey by a pair of strapping young hikers. The misogyny on the other hand is quite unexpected and sometimes rather jarring. Early on in the trek, Bryson and Katz meet a hiker named Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal, Last Man on Earth) who decides to tag along with the old gents despite thinking most of humanity a complete bore. Not only do Bryston and Katz fantasize about bodily harm to this bubbly, albeit irritating woman, they go ahead and ditch her despite having little hiking experience of their own. Mary Ellen is a shrill character, but the attitudes of Bryson and Katz come off has needlessly cruel.
All the while, the only bonding exercise the otherwise grumpy old men can peacefully partake in is reminiscing about their former womanizing glory days- the duo were apparently players back in the day. A particularly disgusting and unnecessarily blue vignette is stitched into the center of the film finding Katz in lust with a heavy set woman- the charmer woos while fiddling around with her undergarments in a launderette. Meanwhile, Oscar winning actress Mary Steenburgen shows up as well in a dreary part of temptation for the happily married Bryson. It’s all an odd fit for an ultimately all too scattered and sadly under-nourished movie.
Verdict: 1 out of 5
Redford and Nolte are undisputed acting greats. For some, just watching the two play off one another might be enough of a reason to check out A Walk in the Woods. However, the film leaves a great deal left to be desired- mostly a beating heart and a reason to care for the character they are portraying. The movie throws around hints of sensitively establishing ideas of age and experience but wastes most of its running time with schlocky one liners and wannabe madcap adventure.