Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama
Directed by: Ken Kwapis
Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson
In the latter half of the 90s, just a couple of years after Cheryl Strayed successfully endeavoured to walk the Pacific Crest Trail whilst on a journey of self-discovery, American writer Bill Bryson set off in the hope of reconnecting with his native homeland by conquering America’s other great nature path, the Appalachian Trail. And now, mere months after Reece Witherspoon brilliantly brought Strayed’s story to the big screen, here comes Robert Redford to help tell Bryson’s. The outcome, however, is more of a gentle stroll than gruelling hike.
Redford first optioned A Walk In The Woods more than a decade ago, hoping that the project would allow him to reteam with Paul Newman on the screen for the third time. Unfortunately, Newman’s ailing health and eventual death put paid to that plan, but Redford continued to nurse the project, apparently driven by the opportunity to blend beautiful backdrops with hearty laughs and honest reflections.
Saddled with the task of traversing Bryson’s terrific travelogue and turning it into something vaguely cinematic, screenwriters Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman show great struggle in trying to draw drama from the source material. Their meandering script introduces us to an older Bryson (Redford), one who’s disengaged with his surroundings and struggling to enjoy his retirement. Keen for one final adventure, and despite the objections of his wife (an underused Emma Thompson), he decides to go on a 2181-mile trek from Georgia to Maine, reluctantly accompanied by his former long lost friend Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte).
Redford’s partnership with Nolte may not be as tantalising as the prospect of having Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reunited out in the sticks, but between them these two veteran actors manage to maintain a steady pace. Though his performance occasionally comes off as too prickly for its own good, Redford does a great job of capturing the acerbic sense of humour that’s so evident within Bryson’s prose; it’s not the exaggerated expressions and broad double takes that make you laugh, it’s the offhand observations or barbed quips that supplement them. Whilst Nolte, playing a person who Bryson describes in his book as having the appearance of “Orson Welles after a very bad night”, captures Katz’s oafishness with a curmudgeonly charm that makes for good company.Certain parts of Bryson’s book, namely those that are narrative heavy, translate tremendously to the screen. A sequence in which Katz finds himself having to evade the husband of his latest sexual conquest, the buxom Beulah (Susan McPhail), is as sidesplittingly absurd on film as it was on page.
Yet for the most part, this is a film that feels lost, as if it’s wandering the wilderness with nowhere to go. Kerb and Holderman struggle to convey any real character complexity – females, in particular, are all forgettable and one-note, despite the best efforts of such performers as Mary Steenburgen – and never seem that interested in considering the challenges faced by the central duo during their expedition, causing them to rely, predominantly, on generic geriatric grumblings to help pass the time.
Worst still is Ken Kwapis’ frustratingly flat-footed direction, which is so unstable it would take more than two trekking poles for it to have any chance of standing up right. He’s even insecure about giving the spellbinding setting a decent look in, refusing to linger on its splendour during sweeping long shots, and regularly resorting to using noticeable green screen during close-ups. Redford may have envisaged A Walk In The Woods as his chance to take an audience to the heart of his Nation’s hinterland, but what we actually go on is a light ramble that struggles to go any sort of distance.