I’m surely not the first to say that A Walk in the Woods plays like Grumpy Old Men meets Wild.
The premise: At 70, real-life travel writer Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) is feeling restless: He’s been going to too many funerals, his adventures all seem behind him, he’s settled into a quiet, content existence with his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) and large family. So he decides, improbably, to hike the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail. Catherine thinks he’s being ridiculous and proceeds to leave him Google printouts of articles about hikers being maimed by bears, found decomposed in the woods, and contracting horrible diseases from poisonous plants. Once she realizes that Bill is not budging, she insists that he at least bring a companion. Bill gets laughed at by nearly everyone he asks, until he gets an unexpected phone call from his old drinking buddy Stephen Katz who heard about the hike through a mutual friend and wants to come. Since he’s being played by Nick Nolte, Katz has a thick, husky voice that suggests decades of dissolution.“Are you in shape?” Bill asks skeptically. Katz assures him that he is.
Of course, the rakish and wayward Katz is not in great shape. (See: Nick Nolte, being played by). He’s a recovering alcoholic with a trick knee, whose face gets red and breathing gets labored after just a few steps. But Bill is desperate to go, so he agrees.
At first, all of this seems a little too cute, a little too facile. After a quarter mile on the hike, Katz is exhausted, barely able to move—but somehow, miraculously, he soldiers on and that level of exhaustion never really reveals itself again. The film is filled with all sorts of such faux moments of danger—a snow storm, a bear attack, an attempt to cross a rocky river—that all end up with neat and sit-commy resolutions. (“That went well,” Bryson cracks, after he falls into the river.)
To make matters worse, the film is guilty of casual sexism. On the trail, Bill and Katz meet an annoying, know-it-all hiker (Kristen Schaal), from whom they devise an elaborate plan to escape. Later, at a rest stop, Katz attempts to woo a full-figured woman—named Buela, no less. “She has a great body,” he tells Bill, “under 200 pounds of fat.”
And yet, darned if the film didn’t ultimately work for me. Mostly, it was the fun of seeing these two veteran actors riff off each other. It really was a bit of art imitating life—with two golden boys who veered in different directions—Redford, the very height of respectability, the face of prestige film and over-priced turquoise jewelry; Nolte, these days more famous for a mugshot where he looks like a homeless man than his acting chops (which remain considerable). Lots of the banter between Katz and Bill is predictable, corny, but some has depth, as when Katz discusses his alcoholism and accuses Bill of rejecting his Midwestern roots or when Bill explains why he’s curious about all aspects of life and nature. By the end, when Bill gets home and receives some unexpected postcards from Katz, I realized that the film had stealthily worked its magic on me. Dammit, I cared.