The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


A Walk in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods, based on Bill Bryson's best seller, was originally intended to be an onscreen reunion of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. It would have been amazing to see those two together again. Newman's illness and subsequent passing prevented that from happening. For years, it seemed as though the picture would never get made. Then Redford - also a producer on the project - got the idea to cast Nick Nolte. While nothing will ever top the Redford/Newman dynamic seen in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, Nolte is indeed a fine substitute. That's good, because A Walk in the Woods is a fairly mediocre movie redeemed significantly by its performances.

Redford stars as travel writer Bryson, who seems to have hit a dry spell in his writing. One day, he decides that the cure for what ails him is to hike the Appalachian Trail. After all, his own country is the only place he's never written about, and what could be better than the great American wilderness? His wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) worries about him walking 2,000 miles on his own; she insists he take someone with him. That person ends up being old friend Stephen Katz (Nolte), an overweight recovering alcoholic. They hit the trail, with one wacky predicament after another ensuing.

While it has some pleasures, A Walk in the Woods feels like it's missing something, specifically a purpose. Other wilderness pictures - like Wild, 127 Hours, and Into the Wild - made it clear that their protagonists were trying to accomplish something emotional out there in nature. Granted, those films were dramas, not comedies. Still, they told very personal stories about what the characters learned from their journeys. In contrast, A Walk in the Woods is little more than a comedy about two old guys on a hiking trip. The humor is often akin to something from a '90s sitcom. There are jokes about their advanced age making it hard to navigate the terrain, their sex lives, the intricacies of defecating in the woods, and the quirky hardships they encounter along the way. There really isn't any depth to speak of.

Perhaps the best example of how the film comes up short can be found in its treatment of women. Emma Thompson is saddled with a generic Wife role. She expresses concern for Bill's trip, then disappears until the end. Mary Steenburgen plays the owner of a motel/restaurant the guys stumble across. Katz repeatedly ribs Bill about his attraction to her. He eventually responds that he's been happily married to Catherine for decades. There's potential for something interesting there, namely an exploration of how being away from his wife for months on end either causes Bill to feel temptation or solidifies his marital devotion. Neither really happens. Steenburgen is given nothing of substance to do, and in no way does her character seem to be more than a blip on Bill's radar. Time and again, the movie bypasses its chance to dig deeper by showing how this trek impacts the men's worldview. The most we get is a little routine third-act postmortem, just to make it seem as though the journey achieved something.

It may miss the big picture, but A Walk in the Woods nonetheless works fairly well as a comedy. Redford and Nolte work up a humorous chemistry as Bill and Katz. The former is prone to soulful self-meditation, while the latter is unrepentantly ornery. These veteran actors fully embody their characters, ensuring that we remain engaged with them throughout. Much of their dialogue sounds like a screenwriter's zingers, although that doesn't mean they don't occasionally land. In fact, several moments - such as a scene in which Katz attempts to initiate a sexual liaison in a laundromat - are quite hilarious. Same goes for a bit in which the guys awkwardly try to intimidate a couple of approaching bears. Kristen Schaal, meanwhile, steals several scenes as an obnoxiously overconfident fellow hiker the guys run into and can't run away from fast enough. Nick Offerman also gets a cameo as a sporting goods salesman who sells Bill a lot of top-of-the-line gear he probably doesn't need.

All in all, A Walk in the Woods is decent light entertainment; there's just no real meat to it. Without a strong thematic center, the movie can feel a bit repetitive at times - Grumpy Old Men in the wild, so to speak. But the scenery is beautiful, and it's hard to resist the chance to see Robert Redford and Nick Nolte clearly having such a great time working together. A Walk in the Woods is definitely more akin to a leisurely stroll than it is to a substantive hike.

( 1/2 out of four)

A Walk in the Woods is rated R for language and some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.

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