Some movies announce their phoniness right out of the gate. Such is the case with A Walk in the Woods, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte as two old friends who commit to hiking the Appalachian Trail. In the film’s first scene, travel writer Bill Bryson (Redford) begins literally in the dark before the lights come up on the set of a local TV morning show. What follows is a grotesque caricature of a terrible interview, with the inquisitor cheerily showing open contempt, partly by his lack of knowledge and preparation. There’s some truth in that, but as directed by sitcom vet Ken Kwapis (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), all the scene lacks is a telltale laugh track to underline the film’s choice of a broad comic tone, with a likeably coasting Redford cast as put-upon straight man.
Kwapis’ film (with a screenplay credited to Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman) adapts Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. In both book and film, Bryson decides to satisfy his latest wanderlust by hiking the 2,118 miles of the trail, the whole five months and five million steps such a trip demands. “I want to explore nature…get back to my roots…push myself,” he explains. Bryson’s wife-of-forty-years Catherine (Emma Thompson) insists that it’s not safe to go it alone, so Bryson calls all his friends. To Bryson’s chagrin, only a non-invitee responds, having caught wind of Bryson’s plans.
This is the pseudonymous Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), who once traveled Europe with Bryson but whose language and body language suggest those of a bull in a china shop. Nolte conveys the distressing ill health of a sedentary alcoholic; the actor does this effortlessly, though he could hardly be more grizzled if he tried. Together, the men encourage each other to finish the trail and to become more authentic to themselves and others. When Bryson notes that most Appalachian Trail hikers wash out after a week, Katz replies, “We’re not most people, Bryson.”
This much is true, but somehow A Walk in the Woods ends up being like most comedies and The Odd Couple II, in particular. Redford and Nolte are no Lemmon and Matthau (in fact, Woods was first planned as a re-teaming of Redford and Paul Newman), but these grumpy old men are agreeable company, much as the film is agreeably scenic. There’s also something potentially fresh in the film’s “75 is the new 55” attitude, making this an adventurous road-trip comedy for “the new elderly.” It’s just that the sudden, serious climax is so awkward as to sheepishly call attention to itself (“That was a nice moment,” Nolte croaks. “Real dramatic”), while the few funny bits and sharp lines amount to fool’s gold scattered around a claim that never satisfactorily pays off.