A sense of humor will take you far in life, even along a daunting stretch of the Appalachian Trail. In his hugely popular 1998 book A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson chronicled his attempt to hike the full length of the trail, from Georgia to Maine, accompanied by an overweight, recovering-alcoholic pal whom he calls Stephen Katz. The two don’t make it all the way; they barely make it part of the way. But then, it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters, and Bryson’s half-jaunty, half-jaundiced observations about communing with nature — and, by extension, oneself — make the book. Here’s how he describes the morning after the first night of the walk: “The inside of my tent was coated in a curious flaky rime, which I realized after a moment was all my nighttime snores, condensed and frozen and pasted to the fabric, as if into a scrapbook of respiratory memories.”
What do Robert Redford’s snores look like after a chilly night in a tent? We shall never know, at least not from watching the film version of A Walk in the Woods, which, after more than 10 years, Redford has finally turned into a reality. Redford acquired the rights to the book in 2005, hoping that his old friend Paul Newman would co-star. The project never took flight, and Newman died in 2008. Now, A Walk in the Woods finally strides out like an awakened bear, blinking in the sunlight: Directed by Ken Kwapis — who has made some sturdy, serviceable entertainments, like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — it has its charming, lively moments, but also many that just feel tired and listless, as if the filmmakers were working off a checklist of all the things two well-past-middle-age travelers would say and do while trekking through the wilderness.
The past-middle-age part is key: Bryson was in his mid-40s when he set off on his mini-adventure. And while Redford, who plays him here, is exceedingly fit for his years, an undertaking like this means something very different for a man even 20 years older. Redford himself is an astonishing-looking 79; his co-star Nick Nolte — playing the wheezing ne’er-do-well Katz, an old friend of Bryson’s from his hometown of Des Moines — is 74. In the early scenes, you can’t help scrutinizing these characters for indicators of decrepitude like failing tickers and bum knees: Katz flies to Bryson’s home in New Hampshire, huffing and puffing as he arrives. Bryson looks vaguely worried about his friend’s condition, but he doesn’t want to do this trip alone, and there are no other takers. As the two board a flight to their start point, in Georgia, Bryson’s wife — played, ably, by a sensible yet sunny Emma Thompson — is clearly thinking just what we’re thinking. How are they ever going to be able to lift, much less carry, their packs? Redford’s Bryson looks capable, but Katz, with his strawberry-colored face and spare-spare tire, looks as if he ought to be skimming along in a golf cart. You fear for them before they even set one wobbly boot on that trail.
Yet age is barely an issue in A Walk in the Woods, except as an excuse for a cavalcade of jokes about all the things older men can’t do that younger men take for granted, most of them involving bedroom antics. (At one point, Katz lays it right out: “You know what I look for in a woman these days? A heartbeat and full set of limbs.”) Maybe that blissful ignorance is supposed to be refreshing, but it’s really just sort of strange. In his book, Bryson devotes serious space to the tyranny of the backpack, and in both the movie Wild and the book it’s based on — Cheryl Strayed’s perceptive, multilayered memoir of the same name — the pack is practically a character unto itself. It is, after all, a whole miniature household that must be carried uphill. In Wild, we watch as Reese Witherspoon becomes first a victim of the pack and then its master. But Katz and Bryson hoist theirs with barely a grunt (though they do, at one point, fall down while attempting to cross a stream). Perhaps Kwapis and screenwriter Bill Holderman just wanted to avoid riffing on the stereotype of groaning old men. But even this small choice is enough to affect the tenor and texture of the story, diminishing the movie’s potential weight. Fallibility and fragility are rarely mentioned, except in emotional terms, like kicking alcohol. The numerous betrayals of the aging body don’t matter so much to these characters, even if they matter to us.
The subtext: Men can do anything, even when they’re ancient! Redford’s intent might be to portray this escapade as a journey of enlightenment, not a laundry list of aches and pains. The idea is vaguely noble, and at the beginning, at least, it’s fun to watch Nolte and Redford riff and rant, needling each other like teenagers. But before long, the geezerish gags become tiresome, even against all this unassailably gorgeous scenery. (Shot by veteran cinematographer John Bailey, the movie fairly glows with emerald light.) Bryson flirts mildly with the owner-manager of a trailside motel — played by the ageless Mary Steenburgen — but he’s too much in love with his wife to do more. Meanwhile, the Falstaffian Katz beds a hefty cutie, only to later have to outrun her angry redneck husband. Hardy-har-har!
Nolte shows sparks of life. Though Redford looks wonderful for his age (or any age), he seems older, because he appears to be bucking for some kind of sainthood. A devoted environmentalist in real life, he infuses Bryson’s character with sanctimoniousness: At one point, Bryson lectures the bored Katz about shifting tectonic plates, and though his penchant for such details is part of the joke, Redford barely seems to be in on it. He has some truly funny bits at the beginning, particularly in a scene with Nick Offerman as an annoyingly knowledgeable sporting-goods salesman. But through most of the movie, Redford is distressingly un-Brysonlike. Bryson is a thoughtful writer, though he often sneaks his deeper ideas across through humor. Redford isn’t loose enough to be funny, and his stolidness makes this walk in the woods more like a trudge. He sure can shoulder that pack, though.
A Walk in the Woods
Directed by Ken Kwapis. Written by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman. Based on the book by Bill Bryson. Starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Nick Offerman, and Kristen Schaal.