Movie review: A surprisingly slapdash adaptation of Bill Bryson's book A Walk in the Woods | Arts
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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Movie review: A surprisingly slapdash adaptation of Bill Bryson's book A Walk in the Woods

Posted by on Thu, Sep 3, 2015 at 12:03 PM

click to enlarge Robert Redford and Nick Nolte hike the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BROAD GREEN PICTURES
  • photo courtesy of Broad Green Pictures
  • Robert Redford and Nick Nolte hike the Appalachian Trail in A Walk in the Woods.
A Walk in the Woods
★ ½ 
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Travel writer Bill Bryson is bored. Semi-retired in a stately New England homestead, he longs for one more grand adventure. Bryson (Robert Redford) stumbles upon his chance when he takes a stroll and discovers that the Appalachian Trail runs right through his neighborhood.

Inspired, he decides to hike the entire thing, despite his advanced age and inexperience with wilderness camping. Bryson partners with his old college pal, Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), another restless 70-something. The two men had a falling out long ago—Bryson became a publishing success; Katz a drunken womanizer—and they hope to reconnect on the five-month journey.

A Walk in the Woods, based on Bryson’s much better book, is an odd-couple comedy that aims for mild, crowd-pleasing chuckles. It earns a few, but for the most part, it’s a long, forced hike through tangles of corny jokes and surprisingly amateurish filmmaking.

Remember that ancient admonition from your Creative Writing 101 teacher, show-don't-tell? Director Ken Kwapis (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) apparently skipped that class. His film is shot through with scenes where the characters simply inform the audience of what's happening in the story and the central relationship. How does a script like this get made?

The inept storytelling handicaps any chance of genuine insight or character-driven comedy, but at least we get to watch Nolte and Redford work together. Nolte remains a formidable screen presence, though his ravaged voice has dropped into a low-register rasp so severe you could make the case for subtitles. Redford maintains his weathered wise-man persona and boyish mop of hair.

There is some initial comic momentum. I liked the scene where Katz tries to hook up with a flirty lady at a laundromat. Well, I liked it until it devolved into some kind of ugly traveling-salesman joke from a 1950s Borscht Belt routine. Almost all the women in this film are treated with conspicuous contempt, actually.

A Walk in the Woods doesn't have an ending so much as a stopping point. It concludes with an abruptness that suggests the creative team gradually lost interest and then ran out of time. I seriously doubt it would have reached the screen without Redford, who has been trying to get it made forever. It’s a lousy movie, but there's a good one in the premise of two grumpy old men on a scenic, comic journey. Luckily, it was made last year by a team of filmmakers from Iceland and the North Carolina School of the Arts. It's called Land Ho! and you can get it online.

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