NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. A Walk in the Woods opens September 2nd.
Who's ready for another literal walk to self-discovery? Robert Redford's latest film, A Walk in the Woods, is one he's been developing for years, originally to co-star with Paul Newman. It's based on travel writer Bill Bryson's memoir about his long hike along the Appalachian Trail with a boozing buddy. But unlike Tracks and Wild which feature incredibly challenging physical performances by their lead stars, the combination of Redford and Nick Nolte only manages to make this walk in the woods as exciting as a summer stroll.
Redford plays Bryson, a very successful travel writer who is starting to feel the restless itch. He hasn't written a book in years, and while his marriage (Emma Thompson plays his wife) is comfortable something is missing. He decides to take on a challenge most men half his age wouldn't dare; hiking the 1800-mile Appalachian Trail. Why? Eh, because it's there? It's a familiar retort from danger-seekers when attempting some remarkable challenge, but Bryson is no thrill-seeker and his reasons for embarking on such a journey are never made clear. Since his wife is convinced he'll be mauled by bears or poisoned by bug farts or something, he must find a companion to tag along. The only one who agrees is Steve Katz (Nolte), and he wasn't even invited. There's a bit of a sting there as Katz realizes Bryson asked people he doesn't even like ahead of him, but before we long we see why he did. Katz is overweight and can barely walk, but he's also a former alcoholic who may have relapsed.
Truthfully, there isn't much that happens on their trek, and when it does it's usually some bit of lousy slapstick. Of course jokes about their age are prevalent early on, especially when they encounter an irritating know-it-all (Kristen Schaal) who won't leave their side. The film goes to great pains to establish how difficult the hike will be, but at no point does it ever feel dangerous. Where are the stakes? There's no peril, but even enlightenment seems to elude them. The guys ponder life, love, growing old and past regrets, but it never amounts to a broader revelation. At the end we're still left wondering why either man felt compelled to do what they did.
Nolte and Redford are too good for their not to be some good individual scenes, and the veteran pair fit comfortably into their "odd couple" roles. Bryson is an intellectual with a sharp wit, while Katz is a brute who can't stay out of trouble or out of the beds of married women. A thin screenplay gets a visual boost from director Ken Kwapis, who finds majesty in wide, sweeping natural vistas. Kwapis directed the whale rescue film Big Miracle and seems to be securing a niche as the chosen filmmaker for this kind of frothy material.
Redford wasn't expecting the film to be added to the Sundance slate and has expressed some shock that it was. It's pretty easy to see why. By the festival's standards A Walk in the Woods is pretty weak, lacking anything close to edginess. It's not a terrible movie but it's doubtful anyone under the age of 60 will care to see it.