A Walk in the Woods

I’ve always been something of a junior hiker. As a kid growing up on Long Island and living in close proximity to wooded areas, it was quite natural to walk to school by walking over the hill through the woods instead of walking on the sidewalk on a street that ran parallel to those woods. It should also be noted that this walk was, from door to door, home to school, was no more than 15 minutes by foot. Or three and half minutes by car.

Then, while living in Manhattan for many years, where I was surrounded by tall buildings rather than tall trees, I got familiar with High Point State Park, and Hacklebarney State Park in nearby northwest New Jersey, also Kent Falls State Park and Housatonic State Forest in the northwest section of CT.

But these outings were all of the day trip variety. All we carried in the way of equipment and supplies were cheap lighters and rolling papers.

Later, my outdoorsiness expanded to Interlaken, Switzerland, Les Baux in France, and the hills and woods overlooking Varenna, Italy on Lake Como. Most recently, in 2011 I hiked with a guide up Moon Hill (below)

in Yangshuo,

Yangshuo Mountain Resort

Yangshuo Mountain Resort

near Guilin in Guangxi Province in China. That was 2011. In 2013 I hiked on the Dragon Back Trail in Eastern Hong Kong, and my last bit of hiking was in Muir Woods, in Marin County last fall.

So at this point I must state that while I have always enjoyed a good walk in the woods, and have even camped out once or twice, a retailer dealing with Camping and outdoor equipment and paraphernalia, like REI would go out of business if the majority of their customers were like me.

Yet, because walking in the great outdoors has always been something I liked to do, and was a way of connecting with my younger days, I saw Tracks with Mia Wasikowski, and yes I saw Wild with Reese Witherspoon. As those films relate to hiking and walking around, I saw them. Yes, these days, in lieu of hiking, or even walking the woods, you can use the word arm-chair hiker to describe me. And you may safely leave the words trek, trekking, or trekkers out of this discussion, at least as it pertains to me and hiking.

But if you are talking about the Appalachian Trail, a trail that covers nearly 2200 miles and runs from Georgia to Maine, I’d be interested, cinematically speaking. So it was no surprise that I would be in attendance at the very first showing of the movie A Walk in the Woods which opened here in Sarasota, on Wednesday. This film which stars Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, easily fits into the narrow niche defined by Grumpy Old Men on one side, and Tracks and Wild on the other side.

Redford plays Bill Bryson, a real writer of note in the real world, who one day decided that he had enough of inertia, of attending the funerals of friends and neighbors, and that he wanted to do something that required a tad more effort than writing forewords for books.

So he decided to tackle the Appalachian trail which happened to go through his very neighborhood near Manchester, New Hampshire. His sensible wife, played by Emma Thompson, could not talk him out of it, but insisted that he could not and must not take on this adventure alone.

After numerous turn downs, Bryson got a call from Stephen Katz, someone he knew fairly well but not very recently. They had fallen out of touch, some thirty odd years ago. Katz needed to stay ahead of some outstanding warrants, invited himself onto Bryson’s journey. He didn’t look like much of a hiker as he even had trouble navigating himself off an airplane in Manchester.

But they were in motion, in a manner of speaking. As they were leaving Thompson, as Catherine, gave her husband these parting words – Try hard not to die….

So begins the A Walk in the Woods. Nolte and Redford are each in their 70’s, with Redford this close to being in his eighties. A Walk in the Woods has been a pet project for Redford for quite sometime. He originally envisioned it as a last pairing with Paul Newman; a kind of Butch and Sundance redux.

Only Newman passed away in 2008. I’ve not been told this as fact – but Nolte originally auditioned for the role of the Grizzly Bear, but when an actual bear and mate found their schedules had opened up, they got the roles. Nolte, was then offered the role of Katz.

On the whole, you will enjoy some scenic wonders of the trail, and the cost of that is that you will have to endure some wacky stuff in the script written by Rick Herb and Bill Holderman. Like Nolte’s Katz is a 70 plus year old frat boy, and Redford’s Bryson approaches the neighborhood of insufferably smart on more than a few occasions.

These two oldsters are the two main characters in a film that attempts to fuse together a travel movie, a buddy film, and an exploration of aging – gracefully or otherwise.

Sadly, while there are more than a handful of laugh out loud moments, and some picturesque views of the Appalachian Trail, the film mostly fails. Assorted characters are shoe-horned in like an obnoxious female hiker, played by Kristen Schaal, who belittles their equipment,

Mary Ellen: Hi - you guys camping here? Bryson : No, we live here

Mary Ellen: Hi – you guys camping here?
Bryson : No, we live here

a couple of bears, a motel/restaurant proprietress play by Mary Steenburgen, and an overweight woman who Katz puts moves on in a laundromat.

She’s got a beautiful body he says, hidden beneath 200 lbs of fat. These guys are full of themselves when they shouldn’t be. I don’t blame them for ditching Schaal’s Mary Ellen, but they refused help getting across a mountain stream – you know stepping from rock to rock – We’re okay, thanks anyway – we like it hard – so half a minute later when they both fall into the stream, it was hardly unexpected.

Some of the gags came straight of the well-known book of stock situations – outdoors.

Does a bear shit in the woods ? –
The collapsing bunk bed –
Ignoring advice that they should stop as they were walking directly into a snow storm –
Giving up and renting a car –

and the most obvious of all – the heavyset laundromat woman’s husband angrily looking for Katz causing both Katz and Bryson to make a hasty exit out the motel’s bathroom window.

I’m going to give this film an overly-generous and friendly rating of three point zero on the 1 to 5 scale. Redford and Nolte are entertaining with Nolte overacting much of the time, and Redford overplaying the stoic and laconic. Emma Thompson was wonderful in her scant 10 minutes of screen time. Ditto for Steenburgen who got even less.

But really, I’ll lay the faults of this film at the feet of Director Ken Kwapis who basically flubbed this film. Oh it isn’t a total disaster by any means – but the bad, the tortured pacing, and most of the sight gags miss their mark. By plenty.

You can see this film if you’ve done the Appalachian Trail, or want to see Redford and Nolte as tenderfoots in the great outdoors, or have actually read Bryson’s best-selling 1998 non fiction book (I haven’t).

I won’t go as far as to describe this film,with the title borrowed from a book by author John Feinstein, who penned a book about golf and called it A Good Walk Spoiled, I will say that you’d be better off making use of your hammock than rushing off to see this one.

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6 thoughts on “A Walk in the Woods

  1. I love Bill Bryson so I had to see this, even if it was a bit of a departure fromt he book. I liked these two old guys together, their chemistry was good, but you’re right: too many cliches crammed into the woods!

  2. We finally saw this just yesterday. Unlike you, Mike, we always wait till the movie is just a few short days from being pulled — that we we get a nearly empty theater! 🙂

    Your review is spot-on. There were so many predictable plots stuffed in this quick movie. Still, at only $4.00 a pop for us, we were quite happy! Robert Redford is still a joy to watch after all these years, and I really do admire Nick Nolte for mainly just hanging in there and getting a good role now and then. As you point out, but for the direction and some predictable writing, the acting efforts were still quite admirable. My only nitpick was with the sudden change in Redford’s character. He starts out as a bumbler and even has a quasi-old man gait. But as soon as they get on the trail he becomes, well, Robert Redford again. I was actually enjoying the initial persona he had, kind of reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s “About Shmidt.”

    Great review. Thanks for getting me to go see it!

    • We have the cheap tickets for the films that screen in the late morning. Surprisingly , the theater I saw this in was an AMC theater and about 80% of the seats were filled. Which I attribute to Florida ‘wet’ season..

      I missed, or just didn’t see it before my eyes, that Redford being Redford switch that you mentioned. Maybe it just seemed that way as he was playing the centered and focused one who was paired with Nolte’s character.

      I liked the reference you made to Nicholson’s About Schmidt. I saw that film only once and it was long after its commercial run had ended.

      Next month I will be seeing a film called Youth – and the stars are anything but youthful. Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel.

      Fred and Mick, two old friends, are on vacation in an elegant hotel at the foot of the Alps. Fred, a composer and conductor, is now retired. Mick, a film director, is still working. They look with curiosity and tenderness on their children’s confused lives, Mick’s enthusiastic young writers, and the other hotel guests. While Mick scrambles to finish the screenplay for what he imagines will be his last important film, Fred has no intention of resuming his musical career. But someone wants at all costs to hear him conduct again.

      Thanks for the very fine comment.

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