Tortoises and Grey Hair

A Walk in the Woods
(USA, 104 min.)
Dir. Ken Kwapis, Writ. Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman
Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson
Robert Redford and Nick Nolte star in A Walk in the Woods.
eOne Films.

Robert Redford and Nick Nolte take a hike in the breezy buddy comedy A Walk in the Woods. Both actors channel their inner Cheryl Strayed whilst walking a mile in shoes borrowed from the set of Last Vegas, albeit with far more dignity, and they make the film nice, light, and amiable affair. While this cinematic stroll isn’t exactly Wild, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable journey. The fun dramedy A Walk in the Woods is a trip worth taking thanks to the two tortoises and their grey hair.

A Walk in the Woods ambles with the same spring in its step that one feels whilst travelling through the words of author Bill Bryson, on whose memoir this film is based. Robert Redford plays Bryson with the same everyman’s character that one feels while reading Bryson’s worldly, funny, and observational books. The film introduces Bryson as a seasoned travel writer in a brutally testy interview in which the standoffish author clashes with a bad breakfast television personality. It’s the kind of cringe-inducing interview made for press junket horror shows/social media notoriety, but something sticks in Bryson like a foreign object into a wound when the host chides him for writing notes on every small island but America.

Bryson thus decides to explore his own backyard and hike the Appalachian Trail from beginning to end. His wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson, great in a small role), thinks it’s a terrible idea, pulls all sorts of horrific research from the Internet, and makes a case that Bill needs a hiking buddy. Enter Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), an old friend from Bryson’s earliest travel follies, and the hikers begin the tour.

Redford and Nolte make an amusing onscreen couple as two cranky old men weathered by experience. They both speak with the salty bite of old age This trip could easily be the last hurrah for either man and like Last Vegas and other geriatric comedies, A Walk in the Woods spares no expense for hit-and-miss gags about old age, rotting wood, and bad knees. The film plays an odd couple dynamic off the two performers as Redford’s dry humour and seasoned sophistication finds a counterpoint in Nolte’s broader comedy and physical punch. (The latter actor looks as if he’s going to keel over and die at any moment during the film). The contrast is appealing, especially since A Walk in the Woods looks at these men who started from similar places and took very different walks from life, but are ultimately trekking a similar journey that leads to the same end. The film shows how certain challenges aren’t for everyone and knowing where one fits in to the overall spectrum is a strength in itself.

In between the scenes of old-man comedy, A Walk in the Woods shuffles the terrain by having the hikers encounter a few colourful individuals who draw out the strengths, flaws, and traits that Bryson and Katz have developed while aging. The more memorable of these pit stops comes via a visit to Mary Steenburgen’s motel proprietress who has eyes for Bryson. There’s a nice hint of longing that goes unsaid between the two actors: Steenburgen plays a character who hasn’t taken the leaps that Bryson has, but finds some contentment and pride in staying in the same place for so long, while Redford shows Bryson to be a man who sticks to a path once chosen. At the same pit stop, Katz finds amour in the laundromat with a plump flirt, and meets some comical wrath when said the husband of said laundry vixen learns that Katz wants to get into his wife’s oversized panties. Some detours along the journey are worth the side steps.

Other encounters along the trek, however, are sitcommy sketches. An early episode with a gratingly annoying (albeit intentionally so) hiker named Mary Ellen (Kristen Schaal) veers the film into cartoonish missteps. Ditto the couple who gives Bryson and Katz a ride to escape Mary Ellen and engages in some erratic highway head while passing a bottle of whisky around the car. There’s a grain of truth to the annoying know-it-alls and louts whom one encounters while travelling, but the peanut gallery of A Walk in the Woods rings false whereas Bryson’s books recount travels with humorous authenticity.

The film still brings the same amusing and inspiring pleasure that one usually finds in travel movies, though, as director Ken Kwapis fills the screen with moving shots of the natural landscape. A Walk in the Woods steps into landscape porn once or twice with some majestic pans that should inspire trips to the Appalachian Trail, but the film conveys the powerful scope of the trail and highlights the rugged terrain to make Bryson and Katz’s journey all the more memorable and comical. Perhaps what’s best about the film, however, is the unexpected ending that the hikers’ journey takes. A Walk in the Woods forges a different path from other travel movies by conveying that the finish line doesn’t determine the winners; rather, the bravery of getting out of the gate makes one a winner. These old-timers may be slowpokes, but their leisurely pace makes this Walk worth taking.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

A Walk in the Woods opens in theatres Sept. 2 from eOne Films.