Robert Redford has been trying to achieve liftoff on a film version of travel writer Bill Bryson’s comic Appalachian Trail memoir for so long that he originally planned costarring in it with Paul Newman, his iconic fellow scene stealer in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. Newman died in 2008 but Redford has made good on his promise, roughing it in a small-scale movie with Nick Nolte as his trekking partner, Ken Kawpis (Big Miracle) as director and Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman and screenwriters. (Michael Arndt wrote a previous version). It’s all so cozy but entertaining, like when an older uncle corners you and regales you with a sweet, if slightly pointless, yarn.
Restless, award winning travel writer Bryson (Redford) has been in England for several decades but announces to his loving wife (Emma Thompson, terrific as usual) that, for, just maybe, a last hurrah, he plans to celebrate his own country by walking more than 2,000 miles — Georgia to Maine. The sensible missus isn’t thrilled. Besides, she’s understandably worried about injury or possible death. Sure, the guy looks like Robert Redford but he’s pushing 80, after all. So she insists her rambling man finds a traveling companion for his adventures. No one else is up for the trek until old friend Stephen Katz (Nolte, looking and sounding aged in whiskey) steps up and volunteers. After all, they backpacked and argued their way through Europe 40 years ago. Why not bury the past and “sneak in one last adventure before it’s too late"? So, it’s off to see a smug hiking gear salesman (Nick Offerman, no surprise) and off they go.
Let’s just say that the movie is no All Is Lost, a simple but profound man vs. elements saga in which Redford was fantastic. Instead, think of A Walk in the Woods as less a codger version of something powerful and profound as, say, Into the Wild than a sitcom-y, schtick-y companion piece to The Bucket List or Last Vegas. Along the way, the travelers encounter a terrifically annoying smarty pants backpacker (Kristen Schaal), a bear, and a warm, wise hotel owner (Mary Steenburgen, just great) who, right on cue, gets the warm and fuzzies for Redford’s character. Redford and Steenbergen’s scenes together pack some nice, slow burn chemistry. The stiff, emotionally constricted Redford doesn’t have the brio his character requires and neither do his scenes with hell-raising old devil Nolte. Still, Redford, knowing his strengths, sets things up as the straight man and lets Nolte play the horny, scene-stealing fool. A Walk in the Woods ambles along amiably enough but it’s frustrating to imagine the film that could have been well made over a decade ago with a younger, more limber Redford and his greatest acting partner Newman. This one is strictly a walk, don’t run proposition.