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A Walk in the Woods

D: Ken Kwapis / 104m

Cast: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Kristen Schaal, Nick Offerman, R. Keith Harris, Susan McPhail

It all starts with a verbal chastisement-cum-ambush on TV: celebrated author Bill Bryson (Redford) is being interviewed and distinctly not feeling the love. When asked if he has retired, Bryson responds by saying, “Writers don’t retire. We either drink ourselves to death or blow our brains out.” The interviewer is unimpressed: “What will it be for you?” Bryson is resigned: “After this interview, probably both.” But the interviewer has found the nub of Bryson’s dilemma as an author, namely what to write about next.

He’s no nearer finding an answer while attending a funeral. While taking a break from the rest of the mourners, he finds himself on part of the Appalachian Trail, a hiking trail that runs 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia all the way to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Suddenly inspired, Bryson tells his wife, Catherine (Thompson), that he’s going to hike the entire trail, despite being unfit and too old. Catherine is horrified by the idea, and takes to leaving newspaper and internet clippings around for him to see, with headlines such as “Decomposed body found on trail” in an effort to dissuade him. Eventually she gets him to agree to hike with a companion. Bryson reaches out to several of his male friends but they all turn him down. It’s only when an old friend he hasn’t seen in years, Stephen Katz (Nolte) gets in touch and volunteers to go with him that the trip becomes a go.

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There are reservations though (how could there not be?). Bryson and Katz always used to rub each other up the wrong way, and back when they were friends, Katz was an habitual womaniser and alcoholic. But he tells Bryson he’s in good shape and ready to go on the hike. When Bryson and Catherine meet him at the airport, Katz’s physical condition raises cause for concern but he assures them he’ll be fine. They set out on the trail from Springer Mountain and soon find it hard going, much more so than they expected. Along the way they meet a variety of people, including the ever-talkative, ever-opinionated Mary Ellen (Schaal), a woman named Beulah (McPhail) who Katz hits up for a date (unaware that she’s married), and motel owner Jeannie (Steenburgn), who develops a crush on Bryson. They have an encounter with bears, hike through heavy snow drifts, and manage to fall down onto a ledge that they can’t get back up from (until two other hikers come along and rescue them).

And… that’s about it. For most of its running time, A Walk in the Woods proves to be a light-hearted, lightweight walk on the wild side, as Bryson and Katz tramp their way along the trail like two men at the head of the hip transplant list. They reminisce, they argue, they bicker, they explore notions of personal regret, and they remain “nice” throughout. Even when they have the expected and entirely predictable falling out, the movie has made it to that point with so little drama attached to it that you could be forgiven for thinking it had all been written out of the story. And it serves to highlight the story’s one major problem: once they’re on the trail, all the excitement is given little or no attention, and any potential for drama is wasted.

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Once on the trail, Bryson and Katz are amiable enough companions, amiable to suit their own needs, and amiable enough for the time to pass without undue hardship or hazards to slow them down (even when they do fall down onto that ledge). It’s a hike that has its fair share of incidents but none of them are dramatic enough to warrant more than a passing interest. There’s also a distinct lack of personal growth for both Bryson and Katz, even though the script by Michael Arndt and Bill Holderman tries hard to include this idea. What we’re left with is a series of mildly amusing anecdotes peppered with isolated, random musings on the fate of the surrounding wilderness (one of the few thematic aspects of the novel retained by the movie). It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so anodyne and disturbingly bland in its execution.

If the movie has anything going for it, it’s the scenery, beautifully lensed by DoP John Bailey. Parts of the trail are absolutely stunning, and the cinematography picks them out and, occasionally, makes them seem hyperreal, as with the McAfee Knob overlook, a jutting piece of rock that allows for a panoramic view of Virginia’s Catawba Valley. Against this splendid backdrop, Bryson and Katz’s mythologising of their younger days pales into insignificance, and the longer the hike goes on, the less involving it becomes, until the viewer is left with the same level of interest as someone having to sit through an extended slideshow of the same journey.

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As the OAP’s who can survive a serious fall without so much as a scratch between them, Redford and Nolte make for a comfortable double act, but there’s little that allows them to spark against each other. Thompson makes more of an impression in her limited supporting role than either actor does across the whole movie, while Steenburgen, Schaal and Offerman all make temporary forays into the limelight before being quickly forgotten. Overseeing all this is Kwapis, a director best known for his work on US TV shows such as The Office and Malcolm in the Middle. In actuality he doesn’t so much direct the movie as guide it by the arm from scene to scene so that no harm comes to it.

Rating: 5/10 – with Bryson’s trademark acerbic wit toned down, and his love of knowledge for knowledge’s sake given few occasions to shine, A Walk in the Woods is a passion-free project that ambles along like its two aging stars, and like them, doesn’t take too many risks; with as little ambition employed as possible, it’s still a pleasant enough movie to watch, but it’s not one that will encourage anyone to take up the same challenge that Bryson did.

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