Editor’s Note: A Walk in the Woods opens in wide release today, September 4, 2015.
If someone adapts travel writer Bill Bryson’s light, lightweight 1998 memoir A Walk in the Woods into a feature-length film starring two aging stars, one exceedingly worse for wear and in constant danger of a life-ending coronary, and no one sees it, does it exist? Did it actually happen? Or was it just a bad dream? The answer, unfortunately, lies not with the stars, but with whoever decided to fund one more (last?) decade-in-the-making vanity project for Robert Redford. A loose, meandering narrative, faux-profound life lessons (the kind only affluent white men can entertain and/or share), and the dubious depiction of the female characters result in a dreary, occasionally cringe-inducing affair, one likely (and thankfully) to be forgotten by moviegoers a week from now, if not sooner.
Without conflict, there is no drama, a lesson Redford seems to have forgotten.
Why Redford thought Bryson’s memoir was ripe or suitable for cinematic adaptation – as opposed to basic cable television – is something of a mystery. Despite more than a decade in development (Redford originally wanted his longtime collaborator and friend Paul Newman to play the second lead, but Newman passed away before financing could be acquired), Redford’s screenwriters, Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, nor journeyman director Ken Kwapis (Big Miracle, He’s Just Not That Into You, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) could wrest anything close to approximating drama from Bryson’s book. Without conflict, there is no drama, a lesson Redford seems to have forgotten. Spurred by an undefined, late-life crisis (fictional given that the real Bryson was in his 40s, not late 70s, when he published his memoir seventeen years ago), Redford’s Bryson decides to leave his comfortable life, including a beautiful, adoring wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson, sadly wasted), to hike the Appalachian Trail, a grueling, months-long trek from Georgia to New Hampshire that many have tried and many have failed to finish.
Concerned about both his safety and health, Catherine convinces Bryson to hike the trail with a partner. After exhausting every friend and acquaintance he can find, an old, former friend, Stephan Katz (a dangerously out-of-shape, wheezing Nick Nolte), contacts Bryson and talks his way into joining him. Depicted in A Walk in the Woods as a moment of levity or comedy, Katz’s bumbling, stumbling entrance (he can barely get off a small prop plane) should have been all Bryson needed to postpone or scuttle the trip, but Katz’s physical conditioning (or lack thereof) barely registers on Bryson, presumably because Katz’s potentially untimely, if not wholly unexpected, demise would make for a good story to insert into his book, a book the fictional Bryson continually insists he isn’t writing. Some bro-bonding happens too, of course, but that’s far from surprising. They reminisce about old times, compare notes on two lives lived differently (Bryson a stable family man, Katz a single womanizer/boozer), and survive a few scrapes and chance encounters, one with bears, the other with the women they meet along the way.
A loose, meandering narrative, faux-profound life lessons (the kind only affluent white men can entertain and/or share), and the dubious depiction of the female characters result in a dreary, occasionally cringe-inducing affair…
Bryson and Katz run across a shrill, annoying hiker, Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal), they begrudgingly embrace due to their shared experience, only to ditch her at the first opportunity. She’s an intruder on the males-only bonding being shared by Bryson and Katz, meant as comedy relief, but instead making Bryson and Katz mean-spirited and contemptuous. Despite his age and physical infirmities, Katz pursues a woman he meets at a laundromat, yet another attempt (a failed one, at that) at comedy relief. She’s overweight, but Katz is more than willing to settle (once a horndog, always a horndog apparently), crudely, cruelly arguing there’s a beautiful woman hidden inside 200 pounds of fat (or something along those lines). We’re meant to side with Katz’s perspective, if not his lack of judgment. Only the third female character they encounter on the trail, Jeannie (Mary Steenburgen), the slightly melancholic proprietor of a family-owned motel, emerges as more than a random caricature.
But with a wife patiently waiting at home for his return from his journey to experience the Appalachian Trail’s natural beauty firsthand, Bryson and infidelity aren’t likely to mix. Risk-wise, an affair is a line or boundary A Walk in the Woods refuses to cross. The possibility of an affair is more than enough for Bryson to briefly interrupt his uneventful journeying to call his wife. By the end of Bryson and Katz’s journey into the not-so-dark heart of affluent, white 70-year-olds, it’s clear that they don’t change or develop beyond the usual learn or re-learn to “appreciate what you have” faux-profound, insipid life lesson we’ve seen and heard countless times, the equivalent of comfort food for the retirees and other oldsters in the audience – A Walk in the Woods’s target audience – but that doesn’t mean anyone else should partake in said comfort food.
A Walk in the Woods is just one more decade-in-the-making vanity project for Robert Redford, a dreary, occasionally cringe-inducing affair, destined to be forgotten by moviegoers a week from now, if not sooner.