Review: Bland ‘A Walk in the Woods’ is ‘Grumpy Old Outdoorsmen’

Maybe if “Wild” hadn't done such a solid and visually rich job of portraying one woman's determination to restart her life by hiking 2000 miles, the banal platitudes and strange visual monotony of two older guys' determination to restart their lives by hiking 2000 miles in “A Walk in the Woods” wouldn't seem so subpar.

Maybe if Robert Redford hadn't done such harrowing, committed and honest work as a man battling nature in “All Is Lost,” Robert Redford's lax, barely engaged work as a man meandering through nature in “A Walk in the Woods” wouldn't seem so subpar.

Maybe if “A Walk in the Woods” weren't having its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, a venue that doesn't always demand artistic or narrative experimentation but certainly rewards the work of risk-taking, it's bland and peculiar artistic and narrative flatness wouldn't seem so subpar.

But here we are in Park City, where “A Walk in the Woods” had a soft-premiere on Friday (January 23) morning before a gala launch in Salt Lake City, where presumably the distance from Sundance may make its innocuous nothingness feel less disappointing.

Surely there's an audience out there in the world for “Grumpy Old Outdoorsmen,” even if Robert Redford & Nick Nolte are no Matthau & Lemmon. 

But there's absolutely no way to shake the certainty that were one of its stars not the Founder & Grand Poobah of The Festival, Sundance never would have glanced in the direction of a film as mediocre as “A Walk in the Woods.”

[More after the break…]

Sensing that his live had fallen into a rut, best-selling travel author Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) announces his intention to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. Bryson's disapproving wife (Emma Thompson) tries to dissuade him with threats of bears and marauding killers, but eventually settles for forbidding him from doing the hike unaccompanied. Bill initially can't find anybody to join him, but he has to settle for long-estranged friend Katz (Nick Nolte).

Katz is a recovering alcoholic with a titanium knee, a trick knee and a voice so gravelly that words must be as painful to speak as they are for viewers to listen to.

Bryson's wife relents, because even though Katz seems like practically the worst travel companion imaginable, she's not enough of a character to mount TWO arguments against her hubby's dream. So Emma Thompson collects her paycheck and mostly departs the film, while Bryson and Katz head down South to begin what seems like an absurdly stupid idea and never really gets validated successfully.

In introducing the film, Ken Kwapis said that “A Walk in the Woods” is essentially a three-hander, focusing on Katz, Bryson and The Trail. Unfortunately, despite terrific raw materials, none of the three characters are any good. 

Written by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman from Bryson's book, neither lead is actually a human, they're two thematic approaches to facing old age. Katz has refused to change. He's still untethered and single and while he tries saying that he loves his life, we know he's going to be missing something important. Bryson, in contrast, evolved and then settled. He went from being a creative, roving spirit to being domesticated. Bryson's change is represented through his shift in rooting allegiance from the Cubs to the Red Sox, even though baseball has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the story, nor is it a part of any secondary character detail. The characters, who are constantly out of breath, are perpetually stopping to discuss how much they have or haven't changed and how they are or aren't happy, though neither character has anything worthwhile to illustrate their point. Theoretically a movie about old friends hiking should be about their conversations and their memories, but I defy anybody to remember a single thing the characters talk about on their journey.

With no real character moments to play with, it hardly matters that the main roles are played by legendary actors.

Redford is going for light comedy, but Bryson hasn't been written cleverly enough to seem like either an intellect or a worth humorist. He's a bemused man with limited motivations and Redford provides no real depth. I'll repeat again how superb and Oscar-worthy Redford was in “All Is Lost,” though maybe he found the ocean a less daunting scene partner than Nick Nolte.

While I'm in the process of praising other recent performances from the “A Walk in the Woods” leads, I'd remind you of how great and soul-wrenching Nolte was in “Gracepoint,” not that you watched. It happens that at this point in his career, Nolte's voice and unavoidable intensity play well in supporting dramatic roles like “Gracepoint” or “Luck,” but really horribly in a wafer-thin comedy. It is, in fact, often hard to laugh at some of the punchlines written for Katz because the more compelling desire is to offer Nolte a lozenge. All I can say about Nolte with confidence is that he convincingly plays a man who looks and sounds like he could die at any second. 

And as for the third character? Well, John Bailey has often been an interesting cinematographer, but this is about as uninspired a depiction of natural beauty as I've ever seen in a movie. There's almost no variation to the treatment of the Appalachian Trail, just repetitive shots of trees and rocky paths. I believe they shot on locations, but many scenes are shot in soft enough focus that the actors could just as easily be standing on a soundstage with paper maché boulders and a green screen backdrop. The lack of visual diversity as the journey goes along means that you can watch the movie without knowing how much time has passed or how much distance Bryson and Katz have covered. With no physical progress and almost no stakes other than the increasing redness of Nick Nolte's face, it's impossible for “A Walk in the Woods” to gain any momentum.

But maybe Kwapis doesn't care about momentum anyway? From “Malcolm in the Middle” to “The Larry Sanders Show” to “The Office” to more varied offerings like “Freaks and Geeks,” Ken Kwapis is a great TV director, which you have to understand I mean as the highest compliment. But as a feature director, from “Dunston Checks In” to “The Beautician and the Beast” to “License to Wed” to “He's Just Not That Into You,” Kwapis has never displayed any ability to arc a movie across 100-ish minutes. His tendency is towards overlit, perfectly centered, unmoving compositions and you can always sense his heart is more in the sitcom-y hijinks than in the character development or the journey. So when a frantic Katz and Bryson flee from the angry husband of a woman Katz tried to romance, Kwapis is more amused by Nick Nolte getting stuck crawling out a window than by the more grounded reality of two characters running out on their bill at a mom-and-pop hotel (run by Mary Steenburgen who almost couldn't serve less of a purpose). Kwapis lets the pacing lag for cameos by Nick Offerman and Kristen Schaal, but can't be bothered to cover up for some very shoddy doubling in a couple minor stunts. 

Kwapis isn't a good match for the material, the writing isn't a good match for the actors, Nick Nolte isn't a good match for comedy and “A Walk in the Woods” isn't a good match for Sundance. Maybe if this movie gets a chance at a theatrical release and it can be viewed in a different context, it might rise to ignorable negligibility. 

Other Sundance 2015 Reviews:
“Finders Keepers”
“How To Change The World”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”