Bill Bryson, who wrote the book version of A Walk In The Woods, is one of my favorite travel writers, an eccentricish character with a keen eye for people and place, an easy charm, and that beautiful ability to be a bit of a prick now and then, in that if-you-can’t-say-anything-nice-sit-next-to-me kind of way. His best stories weave in history, observational humor, nostalgia, and personal adventure story. Bryson himself is depicted as the oddball outsider almost everywhere he goes. Ken Kwapis, who directed the movie version of A Walk In The Woods, is a director best known for Dunston Checks In, The Beautician And The Beast, He’s Just That Into You, and License To Wed, none of which he’s won an Oscar for. In fact, the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw once wrote of License to Wed:
Legend has it that Josef Goebbels had a home movie made of the failed 1944 Hitler assassins being hanged from meathooks with piano wire. It probably had more laughs, more fun, more feelgood moments than this family comedy.
Now, I don’t begrudge Ken Kwapis making a fine living as a director-for-hire on films about Fran Drescher or monkeys (Dunston was an orangutan, obviously I mean Kevin Connolly in He’s Just Not That Into You), but having him direct the first film adaptation of a beloved, best-selling writer is such an obvious recipe for disaster that I blame everyone involved for not stopping this. Robert Redford — who, in addition to playing Bryson in the film, executive produced and has been working on it for a decade — should have to resign from the board at Sundance for a year. Even A Walk In The Woods‘ craft services guy should have to do a few months penance at a penal colony. Nick Nolte… well, I forgive Nick Nolte. He knows not what he does.
Adapting Bryson’s writing in movie form would require finesse even in the best of times, blending as it does past, present, internal monologue, and half jokes in such a way that would challenge even the most gifted visual storyteller. In their attempt to rise to this challenge, Kwapis and his screenwriters Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman basically give us Reese Witherspoon’s Wild meets Last Vegas, with all the wit of a sub-par Two and a Half Men Episode.
At least in Wild, Reese had something to overcome. And overcame it. By contrast, Redford and Nolte’s trip down the Appalachian Trail in A Walk is depicted as something they want to do because everyone says they can’t (because they’re old), and the triumph at the end is them coming to terms with being old. …Huh? So much for raging against the dying of the light, eh? Or maybe the triumph was family. I’m honestly not sure.
Even the choice of A Walk In The Woods as a source itself seems like a poor one. Chief among the joys of reading Bill Bryson are his observations on people and culture, which is lost in a story that mostly consists of, well, two guys walking in the woods. I bet it was interesting the way Bryson wrote it. In the movie it is not.
Redford plays family man Bryson, and Nolte, his long lost friend Stephen Katz (more on that guy here), a slovenly, discheveled, ex-womanizer. A real Nick Nolte type, if you will. After the 20 or so minutes of set up, Bryson’s family telling him he’s too old, Bryson’s friends telling him he’s crazy the clerk at REI being smarmy (how much does REI pay to get prominently featured in every outdoorsy movie made, anyway?), Bryson and Katz finally set off down the trail. That’s when it hit me: my God, am I really going to have to sit through an entire hour of Nick Nolte wheezing while Robert Redford rolls his eyes?
It was about as bad as I’d feared, and sometimes worse. Kwapis and Co’s solution to Bill Bryson-the-writer’s flair for historical anecdotes is to make Bill Bryson-the-character sort of a pedantic dick, waxing philosophical about sedimentary rock or the American maple apropos of nothing, while Nick Nolte croaks about how much he likes pussy (I’m not being crass here, he really does). He’s the wild card, you see.
Bill Bryson the writer meets interesting characters. Bill Bryson the character meets other cardboard cutouts, with Kwapis apparently figuring he could maybe rub them against each other to create fire. These cutouts include:
1. Kristen Schaal, as an annoying hiker that Nolte and Redford ditch because she’s annoying.
2. Beulah, a stereotypical fat sexpot the boys bump into at the laundromat. Nick Nolte helps her untangle her huge panties from the washing-machine agitator (“can you help me with my panties?” she asks), and then buys her some new huge panties from K-Mart as a romantic gesture. Only her husband finds out and comes to pound on the door of the boys’ motel room, so they have to book it out the back window. Which is extra funny because they’re so old! Ha!
3. Mary Steenburgen, as a comely, come-hither motel clerk, once again saddled with the role of woman-who-exists-only-to-provide-plausible-love-interest-for-aging-lead.
On that note, the casting here is so obvious that the scenes that follow are superfluous. Let me guess, Kristen Schaal is comically needling? And Nick Offerman (as the REI clerk) plays Ron Swanson? They could just show up and wave instead of going through the motions of being exactly the way we’ve always seen them.
So, yeah, not a whole lot going on. The Fat Panties Lady storyline was like a sadder, worse-executed version of same in Road Trip, which in Road Trip‘s defense is 15 years old and was at least supposed to be a bawdy comedy when it came out. In A Walk In The Woods, it honestly feels like a nixed B-story from the Big Bang Theory writers room. One of our finest travel writers and you’re going to give us a 10-minute saga of Nick Nolte buying big panties? Great, why not adapt Consider the Lobster and throw in a scene where David Foster Wallace gets chased around by a man in a bee suit? (A lobster suit, maybe).
I’m sure some devil’s advocate commenter is going to claim I’m only hating on A Walk in the Woods because I like Bill Bryson and now I’m unfairly comparing this movie to an imaginary one in my head, and that might be true, if this was a better movie. But knowing A Walk In The Woods was a Bryson adaptation actually flatters it. That at least explains why it was made in the first place, which would otherwise be a complete mystery. If I hadn’t known it was Bryson, A Walk In The Woods would just feel like some half-assed oldsploitation version of Wild starring a poor man’s odd couple with the comedic timing of a Google Translated Mexican sitcom from the ’80s.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.