It’s been years since acclaimed author Bill Bryson (Robert Redford: Captain America: The Winter Soldier) has written anything more substantial than the foreword to another writer’s book. Getting older hasn’t agreed with him, and he bristles at his social schedule, which is filled with funerals and staid gatherings.
To shake things up, he decides to do something amazing: Hike the Appalachian Trail. He’s convinced he can amble over 2,000 miles of American wilderness on his own, with just his pup tent and a canteen. His wife (Emma Thompson: Effie Gray) is less sure of his skills, begging him not to go and printing out horror stories of people who have died on the trail.
Finally, a compromise is reached. Bryson can go if he finds a hiking partner. He picks up the phone, but all his friends are too busy, too old or totally uninterested. The dream is starting to die when Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte: Run All Night) calls him. An estranged pal from his youth, Katz asks to tag along the trail. Desperate, Bryson agrees.
When Katz arrives, Bryson is surprised to find his old hell-raising friend has grown old, fat and lame. Katz wheezes, turns purple at the slightest exertion, and is a general mess. He’s the last person who should walk the trail, but he’s the only person who volunteered.
Together, Bryson and Katz take on one of the most challenging hikes in North America. As the miles roll on, the two old friends talk, gripe and laugh their way through the wilderness. Can two men past their prime trek from Georgia to Maine? Or will they kill each other before they can make camp?
Based on Bryson’s novel, A Walk in the Woods is a journey film about two men who need to find themselves in the wilderness. Fans of the book will note that the characters are significantly older than those in the book, and the plot is a fast and loose adaptation. Still, the film manages to address the subjects of aging, finding yourself and friendship with humor and some insights.
Director Ken Kwapis (Happyish) keeps the story simple. It’s essentially a two-man show, with Bryson and Katz trundling through the wilderness as the main attraction. Kwapis focuses on the comedy of the pairing and the majesty of the mountains and forests they traverse. John Bailey’s cinematography will convince you to visit the trail yourself to see the gorgeous vistas captured in the film.
The core of the film is the relationship between Bryson and Katz. Redford is charming, infusing Bryson with intelligence and determination. He is a man missing something, and he convinces himself a few months of walking and eating camp rations will help him find it.
The real star, however, is Nolte. It helps that his life has somewhat mirrored Katz’s life, as the years of hard living play plainly across the actor’s face. Nolte crashes into every scene, growling in his smoke-cracked baritone and saying the exact wrong thing 90 percent of the time. Katz’s oblivious crass nature hides a wounded man desperate to find some meaning in his life. Nolte manages to be both an exemplary buffoon and a tragic lost soul.
A Walk in the Woods isn’t a perfect film. The production is a little too slick, and the film would rather go for shallow laughs than delve into what frayed Bryson and Katz’ relationship. In spite of its flaws, it is a funny, sweet story about finding yourself and an old friend in the woods.
Good Dramedy • R • 104 mins.