A Walk in the Woods spends very little time in the woods. The film does, however, spend plenty of time in remote hotels, laundry facilities, rental-car parking lots, diners and homes.
The project that would become A Walk in the Woods has bounced for nearly 20 years, and at one point was being positioned as a reunion movie for Robert Redford and Paul Newman. That might’ve been very cool. Seeing Newman and Redford onscreen together again would’ve earned a lot of goodwill from audiences, even if the characters they played were a bit tacky.
Instead, we get Redford following up some great performances (All Is Lost, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) with perhaps his worst performance, as he spends a 104-minute slog swapping bad dialogue with a croaky Nick Nolte in full clown mode.
Redford plays Bill Bryson, the real writer who penned the book upon which the film is based. While taking a walk during a funeral, he spies the Appalachian Trail. After a few hours on Google, he decides he’s going to do the 2,000-mile hike, much to the chagrin of his wife (Emma Thompson), who insists he gets a hiking partner.
Bryson finds a partner in Stephen Katz (Nolte), a friend with whom he had a falling out years ago—who now very much wants to go hiking with him for no real explainable reason. The two set out on the trail, and we soon learn the chemistry between Redford and Nolte is nonexistent. They just look and feel weird together, and while that’s intended to be funny, it winds up being unsettling and odd.
What constitutes humor in this film? At one point, Bryson and Katz are sleeping in their tents when a couple of big bears wander into their camp. Bryson hears their approach, and the first thing he does is yell to Katz—probably not a good idea, since bears have these things called ears. Bryson happens to have a bear-attack handbook nearby, and he coaches Nolte to stand up in his tent and yell a lot. The bears see a couple of tents jumping around, and they decide they don’t like that sort of thing before scampering off. Ha ha ha ha ha!
First off, possible bear attacks aren’t funny. They are scary. I’m good with a scene in which two guys manage to get hungry bears out of their camp, but I’m not good with a scene that feels like it should be in a Disney Channel sitcom. Watching Redford and Nolte behaving like asses while bears roar in disapproval is as weak as it gets.
It seems the main direction given to Redford was: “Do your best surprised and confused look!” He spends half the film looking ridiculous while doing things like falling down and getting stuck in the mud. Meanwhile, Nolte is asked to stuff pancakes in his face and help an overweight woman who gets her panties stuck in a washing machine. It’s downright embarrassing.
The movie is directed in a rather pedestrian way by Ken Kwapis, the maker of such landmark films as The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Dunston Checks In. Directors who were slated to helm the project over the years included Richard Linklater (Boyhood, School of Rock) and Larry Charles (Borat). Something interesting would’ve probably been delivered by either of those guys. Instead, Kwapis made something akin to a “Let’s go camping!” episode of Full House.
In the end, this movie isn’t really about hiking the Appalachian Trail. It’s about trying to hike the Appalachian Trail and getting into wacky hijinks along the way. A better title would’ve been A Walk Into a Laundromat to Mess With Some Large Lady’s Underwear After Eating a Bunch of Pancakes While Mugging for the Camera a Whole Lot … and Then Maybe We’ll Actually Hike In the Woods for, Like, Ten Minutes.
A Walk in the Woods is playing at theaters across the valley.