Why would a successful travel writer --- not a youthful
man --- suddenly decide to hike the Appalachian Trail? Though Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) never exactly answers that query, he does provide an adventure well worth the effort to get to a theater.
The real-life Bryson wrote "A Walk in the Woods", which was a New York Times best seller in 1998, after his attempt to thru-hike the 2,190 mile Appalachian Trail with an old friend, Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte). Bill had been a renowned author of travel adventures, and had spent 10 years in the U.K., where he met his wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson).
When Bryson and his family relocated to New Hampshire, he became relegated to writing the forwards for other's books, and felt he needed to shake up his life. He hits upon this crazy idea of "hiking" the trail, which stuns and alarms Catherine. After demanding that he not go alone, Bill is determined to find a companion hiker. When all of his friends decline, out of the blue an old acquaintance, Katz, calls to inform Bill that he would like to accompany him on this quest.
Bill hasn't seen Katz in many years, and when he deplanes in New Hampshire, Katz can barely make it down the steps --- not a good sign for a 2000+ mile trek. But the two of them gear up, and head off to Georgia to begin their experience.
When Redford first read Bryson's book in 2002, he originally secured the rights for a film as a vehicle for Paul Newman and him. But as the project experienced delays, along with Newman's declining health, Redford turned to Nolte, with whom he had worked on the 2012 "The Company You Keep", in which Redford starred and directed.
These two veteran actors exude an amusing and congenial chemistry. Redford could not be a better choice as the erudite and stand-offish Bryson --- it suits his style of acting perfectly. He's also astute at comedy, and "A Walk in the Woods" is delightfully funny --- laugh-out-loud funny.
Nolte definitely has a comedic side, playing a philosophical homeless man in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills", and his wide repertoire is full of notable performances. Having Nolte portray the crusty Katz is a stroke of genius. As Katz he provides the much-needed balance to Bryson's seriousness.
The supporting cast, including Thompson, Nick Offerman, Mary Steenburgen and the supremely annoying --- in a good way --- Kristen Schaal, playing fellow hiker Mary Ellen, adds all of the right touches to this hilarious screenplay by Bill Holderman. Granted, there are a few silly scenes, such as Katz trying to woo an overweight woman at the laundromat --- only to find out she's married, and has a mammoth, angry husband.
But, generally, the script is very well written, and the dialogue is witty and moves along at a good pace. My favorite scene has the two outdoorsmen spending the night perched precariously on a ledge in the mountains after having fallen there, with seemingly no way to get themselves out of their predicament. Their conversation regarding the stars --- and life --- is refreshingly honest.
Director Ken Kwapis apparently had some fun reigning these two thespians in a little, but the end result is the reward. The cinematography by John Bailey, who worked with Redford many years earlier on "Ordinary People", is sublime --- what one would hope for within a movie about the Appalachian Trail. Bailey utilized both digital and 35mm film, especially for the trail shots because of its portability, and the beauty "you can only get on film".
"A Walk in the Woods" is hugely entertaining. People of a certain age, i.e., Baby Boomers, will especially appreciate its humor.
Opinion: See It Now!
The Appalachian Trail, at 2,190 miles, is one of the longest continuous footpaths in the world, extending from Georgia to Maine. Serious hikers, about 2500 a year, attempt to thru-hike it over a period of six months. So what chance do two old codgers have to complete this march, and more importantly, how can a film about it sustain our interest?
"A Walk in the Woods" works on many levels, not the least of which is the camaraderie of Robert Redford and Nick Nolte in the lead roles. Redford stars as Bill Bryson, the author of the book upon which the movie is based. He is a successful writer, happily married to Catherine (Emma Thompson), but seeking one final adventure before settling into a more sedentary lifestyle.
Bryson solicits old friends and acquaintances to accompany him on the challenge of the Appalachian Trail, or A.T. as it's called, but receives only rejections, until a phone call from old pal Stephen Katz (Nolte) changes everything. From the time Bill spends in a camping outlet buying equipment, ably assisted by store expert Dave (Nick Offerman), to the moment his adventure with Katz inevitably comes to an end, "A Walk in the Woods" is a delightfully funny trek through the wilderness, with occasional stops in civilization. The movie is packed with veritable knee-slapping scenarios, beginning with Bryson's TV interview conducted by an obnoxious host.
Just when we think the movie may lose its gusto, Bryson and Katz run into varying obstacles during their trip. These include characters like the hilariously annoying Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal), the appealingly obese Beulah (Susan McPhail) and her jealous bat-wielding husband (John Kap), and the liquor-swilling, drunk-driving couple who picks them up hitchhiking.
The daring duo also runs into foul weather --- it snows when all signs point to mild conditions --- and an hysterical encounter with a couple of ravenous bears. Their brief stay at a bunkhouse, and a longer sojourn at a lodge run by the suggestively sexy Jeannie (Mary Steenburgen), accompanied by her dementia-afflicted mother (Mimi Gould), are worthy of more big laughs, none more so than when Beulah's husband tracks Katz to the lodge.
Redford felt compelled to make this film after reading Bryson's book, which for the veteran actor was filled with laugh-out-loud scenarios. Initially he wanted to make one more movie with Paul Newman, but the latter's failing health and age were too much to overcome. So Redford turned to Nolte, and it was a perfect choice.
Nolte is a huge on-screen presence, a gruff, ruddy-complected, big bear of a man. Yet he imbues Katz with smarts and a self-deprecating sense-of-humor that contrasts ideally with Bryson's logical thinking and curious mentality. Director Ken Kwapis ("The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants", "Big Miracle") compares "A Walk in the Woods" to a Bob Hope-Bing Crosby road film --- high praise indeed. While his film may lack the zaniness of a Hope-Crosby road picture, let alone Dorothy Lamour, it is still a legitimate comparison.
Ultimately, the film is about recapturing a friendship that was all but forgotten, sharing one final adventure where male bonding is reaffirmed. But "A Walk in the Woods" is also about the strength of an enduring marriage, as evidenced by Bryson's reflections of Catherine when he's not sure he'll make it home, as well as her surprise reaction when he does.
For Redford, this film is his second recent foray into a man-versus-nature conflict, the other his Oscar-nominated turn in "All Is Lost" (2013). Where that movie was devoid of all dialogue, "A Walk in the Woods" is lavishly strewn with droll exchanges. Credit goes to screenwriter Bill Holderman for an intelligent and inventive script. There are quiet moments, to be sure, as when Bryson and Katz come across spectacular views of their environment, and later as they ponder their fate while trapped on the side of a mountain. But in both films, the protagonist(s) must come to grips with his own mortality.
If younger moviegoers are contemplating a climb of the Appalachian Trail, consider this. The A.T. extends through 14 states, and hiking the entire elevation is akin to climbing Mt. Everest 16 times. My suggestion is go enjoy "A Walk in the Woods" instead.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!