Robert Redford and Nick Nolte Pack Everything Except a Decent Script for A WALK IN THE WOODS

by Frank Calvillo

Some projects are such a given that you firmly believe that they cannot fail. Maybe its that kind of strong, yet blind certainty that somehow curses those films, making them feel like less than the sum of their parts.

That was certainly the case with A Walk on the Woods, a new comedy/drama starring Robert Redford in his first leading role following his career triumph with All is Lost.

Based on the real life memoir of Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods stars Redford as the celebrated, yet slightly disenchanted travel writer who finds himself at a crossroads in his life. After attending a friend’s funeral, Bryson decides he is going to walk the famous Appalachian Trail. His wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) is dead set against it, and no one in Bryson’s current circle is game to join him. However, when an old friend named Katz (Nick Nolte) says he’ll walk the trail with him, the two men embark on one of the most unforgettable journeys of their lives.

As is the case with travel-based films, there a number of subplots, sequences, and scenes which are all wildly different from one another, but somehow manage to work harmoniously. However, A Walk in the Woods is disjointed in so many ways, that its hard to even nail down what kind of tone the movie is going for.

It isn’t so much that a number of intriguing side characters appear and disappear with no more than a tip of the hat from them, it’s that many potential thematic avenues for Bryson and Katz to go are only briefly visited and then abandoned. Bryson’s semi-attraction to a motel owner (Mary Steenburgen) and a hilariously annoying fellow hiker (Kristen Schaal) are intriguing premises that all but vanish after no more than a few minutes of screentime. Just another stop on the trail, I suppose.

The most criminal of the bunch however is the somewhat base exploration of the two men’s pasts. Bryson and Katz were friends in their 20s when they traveled through Europe together before losing touch for a number of decades. With two plum characters full of backstory, I was expecting plenty of soulful exploration of their lost friendship as well as the different paths their lives had taken. Redford and Nolte are two of the greatest actors of their generations, and having them play a collection of these kinds of scenes would have been like candy for many a cinephile. So why did everyone decide against it?

If the script is far from being up to par, the performances more than make up for it.

Redford hasn’t been this fun to watch in years, and while comedy isn’t what he’s known most for, he handles most of the comedic situations and jokes with the skill of some of the best straight men. The actor compounds this by bringing the kind of sensitive and moving quality he’s known for to the more elegiac moments in the script.

He’s more than equally matched by Nolte, an actor whose performance here only adds to an already impressive body of work. The actor admittedly has the flashier of the two roles, playing a gruff vagabond who never grew up but never steals the spotlight from his co-star. As a result, Nolte gives a true tour de force performance in a role which truly allows him to play almost every kind of scene under the sun from rambunctiousness to remorse.

Stuck playing the role of the loving, yet worried housewife, Thompson’s lovely presence overshadows her role. I remember seeing the actress comment in an interview how for years she had been rejecting any script in which her character says to her husband, “Please don’t leave me to go do that brave thing.” Apparently being married to Redford on screen was enough to make her change her mind.

A Walk in the Woods has a strong cast, beautiful shots of the country, and enough scattered decent moments to partially recommend it. Ultimately though, the film is too busy and disjointed to give off the kind of reaction its makers intended.

And yet, I’m grateful for the film’s existence. It’s been said much too often that there are no films left for the older demographic to enjoy due to the bumper crop of youth-driven tentpoles out there. I kept thinking throughout A Walk in the Woods, despite its flaws, how much my father would enjoy it. Beyond serving an audience so continuously overlooked, there’s also an undeniable joy in seeing familiar actors doing what they’re known for and still doing it better than ever. A Walk in the Woods has that. Sadly though, it doesn’t have much else.

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