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Review: A Walk in the Woods (2015)

A Walk in the Woods (2015)

Directed by: Ken Kwapis

Premise: Based on the memoir by Bill Bryson. After the death of a friend, Bryson (Robert Redford) and his friend Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte) attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail.

What Works: A Walk in the Woods is a very likable movie. In it, two senior citizens who have no background in serious hiking decide to set out on the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200 mile trek across the east coast of the United States. The film benefits from the fish-out-of-water qualities of its lead characters. Neither of these men know what they are doing and they are well past prime hiking age and the filmmakers mine that for humor. Robert Redford and Nick Nolte play a very likable on-screen pair. Each of them is distinct and well-cast, with Redford as the successful writer who has gotten soft and Nolte as the feisty but worse-for-wear partner. Both of these men are confronted with old age but each of them faces it differently; Redford’s character is the classic suburbanite whose affluent lifestyle has become a prison while Nolte’s body is failing him after years of alcohol and other abuse. Redford and Nolte are credible as a pair of old friends who have fallen out of touch and rediscover each other on their hike. Nolte is given the more colorful role, with Redford playing the straight man, and Nolte contributes a lot of laughs to the movie. The filmmakers also find humor in the extreme sport culture. As these two men pack for their trip they discover the high end camping and backpacking industry with its overpriced goods and the zealousness and occasional snobbery of the outdoor culture. In that respect, the film features a fun supporting performance by Kristen Schaal as an obnoxious hiker who tags along with Redford and Nolte for part of their journey. Schaal throws herself into an unlikable character and creates some big laughs.

What Doesn’t: Just as good sports movies are not only about athletics, successful films about road trips and hiking aren’t really about traveling. The must have some other significance. For instance, Into the Wild isn’t just about a young man hiking into the wilderness of Alaska; it’s about a young malcontent who attempts to escape the expectations and restrictions of contemporary society. 2014’s Wild is not just about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail; it’s about a woman attempting to heal herself through a physical odyssey. The problem with A Walk in the Woods is that there does not seem to be a point. These guys don’t learn anything about themselves or each other or life in general. Bill Bryson, played by Redford, is prompted on the journey after the death of an acquaintance. But there is no point at which he or Katz, played by Nolte, reach an epiphany. This is most apparent at the conclusion of the film in which their journey does not reach an end so much as it just stops. Despite its title, quite a bit of A Walk in the Woods does not take place in the forest and the movie is a lot less interesting whenever it gets off the Appalachian Trail. In their journey the men pause at rest stops and hotels where they get into sophomoric shenanigans that seem like they belong in some other movie. The regard for women in A Walk in the Woods is not very good. Emma Thompson plays the wife of Redford’s character and she is nag, Kristen Schaal’s character, although funny, is an idiot, and Mary Steenburgen is cast as a lowly innkeeper who throws herself at Redford. The film gives the impression that the women of this story are there only to be leered at or ridiculed. 

Bottom Line: A Walk in the Woods is not a great movie but it is likable, mostly because of the performances by Robert Redford and especially Nick Nolte. Where the movie falls short as a travelogue it mostly succeeds as a buddie flick.

Episode: #561 (September 27, 2015)