The lure of the wild has recently attracted an interesting batch of solitude seekers: Reese Witherspoon (Wild), Mia Wasikowska (Tracks) and Robert Redford, twice.
Two years after All Is Lost, Redford has swapped the sea for the woods, and wordless isolation for Nick Nolte. It’s not a bad trade.
A Walk in the Woods is a broad and congenial comedy about two aged old friends trying to hike all 2,000-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine. It’s light on its feet, even though its geriatric woodsmen are plodding and grunting.
The story, taken from Bill Bryson’s 1998 book, might seem like the kind of hokey comedy trotted out every now and then for older moviegoers. It is that, to be sure. But Redford and Nolte are a class, or two, above the standard stars of such fare. While A Walk in the Woods is tame stuff, indeed, a simple, comic stroll with pleasant company is a decent way to end a movie summer where the usual pace is a Tom Cruise sprint.
Redford has been trying to adapt Bryson’s book for 10 years, and he’s now older than the author was when he made his trip, along with his pal Stephen Katz (Nolte). It makes their endeavor, particularly on the part of the wheezing Nolte, a little incredulous.
Nolte’s Katz, a former alcoholic and proud philanderer, was never an ideal hiking companion; he’s the only one Bryson could get to go with him. But Nolte, 74 and so croaky he can be hard to understand, is now more convincing as a grizzly bear than a camper. This, thankfully, is not a movie where the actors are weighing down their backpacks for the sake of realism.
The germ for the trip begins when Bryson returns to his New Hampshire home after a humbling book tour where he’s met with questions of retirement — likely the same kind Redford has become accustomed to fielding but happily (for our sake) ignoring. Authors, Bryson responds, don’t retire. They either drink themselves away or blow their brains out.
But Bryson is instead drawn by a mysterious longing to hike the Appalachian Trail. His concerned wife (Emma Thompson — now there’s a couple) insists he find a companion. When everyone he can think of turns him down, Katz, with whom Bryson had lost touch, calls him up to say he’s game.
After the two set out in Georgia, their adventures unfold in episodic encounters and pratfalls. Along the way, they meet Kristen Schaal (as an annoying fellow hiker), an attractive innkeeper (Mary Steenburgen) and, inevitably, a bear.
But whereas Wild sought redemption across the country on the Pacific Crest Trail, profundity isn’t the pursuit of Bryson, Katz and A Walk in the Woods. Director Ken Kwapis (Big Miracle), working from the script by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, steers it on well-trod but pleasant buddy-comedy paths that offer few surprises other than the undiminished appeal of its ambling stars.
A Walk in the Woods
Director: Ken Kwapis
Cast: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson
Rated: R (strong language, sexual references)
Running time: 104 min.