A Walk in the Woods

Posted by Joel Copling on September 2, 2015

Anyone who's had the fortitude to do multiple days of hiking in a row will understand that first day of unendurable agony. Oh, it starts out swimmingly enough. In fact, whatever the elevation or difficulty level, that first quarter of a mile is actually sort of fun. Then your muscles start the slow death of seizing up, breathing becomes more difficult, and soon you just want it all to end and you're not just talking about the hike. "A Walk in the Woods" might be a light entertainment, but it gets the gravity of a dangerous, exhausting hike perfectly right (Director Ken Kwapis and cinematographer John Bailey certainly capture the scenery well), and then it transplants that into the bodies of two gentlemen who are very clearly aging.

One of them, at least, was prepared for this. Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) has just recently written the book that shares the same title as the movie (with Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman adapting it for the screen) when the film opens. He based it around his experiences in Europe from when he was younger, exploring the wilderness of France, Italy, England, and other such picturesque places. He understands the dangers of walking mostly uphill for dozens of miles. The problem is that Appalachian Trail is more than simply dozens of miles; it's more than 2,000 of them. His wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) is, of course, worried about things like bears and exposure (There's an amusing bit where Thompson narrates a selection of pamphlets about the dangers of wildlife and news stories about corpses found alone in the woods); Bill is probably worried, too, but at least he's experienced in these matters.

The same cannot quite be said for Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte, making audiences everywhere worry once again about the wellbeing of his larynx), whom Bill invites on the trip after Catherine insists he go with someone. When he steps off the plane to meet Bill, he's seemingly purple with high blood pressure, he needs to eat hourly due to a medical condition brought on by the adverse effects of a prescription drug, and both of his legs have artificial elements to help keep him on his feet properly. It's worrisome, not least when he hobbles the first dozen steps of the hike and breathes like a winded rhinoceros.

The film is the definition of the word "episodic," with the two encountering the usual antics of hiking: Kristen Schaal appears as another hiker on the trail who apparently thrives on alone time spent singing popular music, although she has the annoying habit of talking Bill and Stephen's ears off. The two men come face-to-face with two grizzly bears, an isolated cliff onto which they fall with possibly no chance to escape, and interpersonal conflict that mostly just arises out of exhaustion. This stuff works; less successful is a stretch spent at a hotel, wherein Bill attracts the attention of a pretty hotel manager played by Mary Steenburgen and Stephen inadvertently commits adultery with a woman whose husband chases after him, that goes on for far too long and then just cuts back to the main narrative unceremoniously. Still, for the chance to see two acting legends do their thing in the middle of nowhere in a breezy, frothy comedy, "A Walk in the Woods" is good enough.

Film Information

Robert Redford (Bill Bryson), Nick Nolte (Stephen Katz), Emma Thompson (Catherine Bryson), Mary Steenburgen (Jeannie), Kristen Schaal (Mary Ellen), R. Keith Harris (Sam Bryson), Nick Offerman (Dave), Randall Newsome (TV Host).

Directed by Ken Kwapis and written by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, based on the book by Bill Bryson.

Rated R (language, sexual references).

104 minutes.

Released on September 2, 2015.