Movie Review: A Walk in the Woods
By Matthew Huntley
September 9, 2015
Even if the events and situations in A Walk in the Woods really did happen, it wouldn’t matter, because as adapted scenes, they don’t make for funny or interesting cinema, at least not in their current form. Ken Kwapis’ film, based on Bill Bryson’s memoir, which recounts his and friend’s Stephen Katz’s misadventures while hiking the Appalachian Trail, mostly comes across as flat and inconsequential. That’s probably because, whether based on fact or fantasy, the material feels overly familiar and substandard. You would think seasoned actors like Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, who are no doubt smart individuals, would know better than to lend their talents to such a trite story, but perhaps they didn’t see it this way because they could easily relate to their characters, both in terms of age and life experiences. We can relate to the characters too; we just can’t buy what happens to them.
In the film, Redford plays Bryson, a travel book author who’s written a lot about foreign countries but has never tackled America. He’s spent the past four years writing forewords for other books, and following an unenthusiastic plug for his past works on a morning talk show, along with a friend’s recent death, Bryson is feeling down, vulnerable and counterproductive.
So he impulsively decides to hike the Appalachian Trail, telling his caring and level-headed wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson), “I need to get back to my roots.” Of course, she thinks he’s out of his mind, reminding him, “You haven’t hiked in over 30 years,” before printing out articles that illustrate just how dangerous the trail can be, from serial killers to mauling bears. She says there’s no way he’s hiking it alone.
Bryson makes about a half-dozen phone calls to friends asking if they’d like to join him but they all know better. Then, out of the blue, he receives a call from Katz (Nolte), an old buddy with whom he fell out of touch. Katz, speaking with a pungently raspy voice and limited breath, says he’ll join Bryson for the 2,000-plus mile expedition, although he clearly isn’t shape to handle the trek that starts at Springer Mountain in Georgia and ends at Mount Katahdin in Maine. Neither is Bryson for that matter.
Nevertheless, the two fly down to Georgia, and with their tents, supplies and expensive backpacks, start hiking back up. Thus begins a series of surprisingly sitcom-level and often slapstick misadventures, which include encounters with other colorful characters and those quieter moments of insight in which Bryson and Katz discuss heavy subjects like existentialism, human mortality, and how we all fit into the grand scheme of the universe, etc.
The latter, of course, is the screenplay’s attempt to give the movie substance, and these scenes might have been enough to carry the film, however conventional they are, but they’re bookended by poor attempts at humor that dilute their effect. Take, for instance, two scenes that try to be outrageous and/or kooky but come across as just plain lame. The first occurs after Bryson and Katz meet an obnoxious fellow hiker named Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal), who’s both a chatterbox and know-it-all. She’s like one of those punching bag clowns: no how many times you want to smack it, or keep smacking it, it always bounces back up. They decide to ditch her but inadvertently hitch a ride with a young, white trash couple driving with an open whiskey bottle. I guess this scene is supposed to be funny because the couple is drunk, about to get married, and driving recklessly. Whatever the case, it doesn’t add up to anything and becomes just a random time-filler.
Another failed sequence takes place after Katz has a sensual conversation with the full-figured Beulah (Susan McPhail) in a Laundromat as she washes her panties. Following an off-screen sexual rendezvous, he discovers Beulah is married and suddenly he and Bryson are being chased by her large, angry husband in a scene that mirrors a similar one near the end of Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004), which, coincidentally, was also about two old friends taking a trip together. The difference is the Sideways version was unexpected and actually paid off thanks to great comic timing; the one in “A Walk in the Woods” feels forced and we know it’s coming ahead of time, so it’s not nearly as satisfying.
In fact, we can sense a lot of things ahead of time in A Walk in the Woods, which lacks the key element of surprise. We know, for instance, Bryson and Katz will have heart-to-heart talks about their falling out and why they never kept in touch over the years; as well as discuss Katz’s drinking problem when Bryson discovers he’s stowed a bottle of liquor in his backpack. The movie will also feature that critical moment when both men must decide if they’re really cut out for this trip or if they’re just fooling themselves.
The question driving the narrative thus becomes whether or not these two old-timers will reach their destination. Like all movies about great journeys, though, our investment doesn’t rest with the destination, but rather with what happens along the way. And unfortunately, what happens along the way of A Walk Into the Woods are would-be comic moments followed by would-be insightful moments. I use the word “would-be” because none of the scenes ever really amount to much. They’re not terribly funny or profound, and despite the rich and impressive aerial shots of the trail from director of photography John Bailey, the whole movie feels insignificant. It’s a shame, too, because Redford, Nolte and the rest of the cast are definitely up for the material; it’s the material that’s not up to them.