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Walk in the Woods, A
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Trail Of Yawns"
2 stars

"A Walk in the Woods" is a film that tries to coast almost entirely on the good will generated by its two co-stars. Since the co-stars in question are living legends Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, that is a lot of good will for it to draw from but even that is not enough to get this aggressively innocuous story across the finish line. For its target audience--which appears to be mostly people waiting patiently for a third "Exotic Marigold Hotel" film to come along--it will no doubt come across as a pleasant enough diversion but for anyone looking for anything else will find it to be as blandly forgettable as its title.

Redford plays travel writer Bill Bryson, whose 1998 memoir/travel book inspired the film, and as the story opens, he is at odds with his seemingly comfortable life--his kids and grandkids are all grown, his friends are begin to die off and he doesn't just want to fade into the woodwork. One day, he hits upon what he thinks is a brilliant idea--having spent most of his career as a travel writer dealing with Europe, he will at long last explore America by hiking all 2200 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Considering that he is pushing 80 and has never really done much in the way of hiking before, his wife, Cathy (Emma Thompson), thinks that this particular whim is both unnecessarily risky and unfathomably foolish. The only way that she will even begin to approve of the idea is if Bill can find someone to accompany him but none of his dwindling pool of friends are particularly eager to make the journey.

Finally, he gets a companion when old friend and travel buddy Stephen Katz (Nolte), with whom he hasn't heard from in decades since the two fell out while on a jaunt through Europe. Overweight, shambling and a recovering alcoholic whose status is on the shaky side, Stephen barely appears capable of getting off of a plane, let alone walking from Georgia to Maine. However, the two of them set off on their journey and run into any number of complications along the way--an obnoxious fellow hiker (Kristen Schaal), occasionally brutal weather conditions, black bears and their own poor estimates in regards to their stamina and how much terrain they can reasonably cover in a day. They also manage to find time to flirt with a couple of women along the way--Bill charms the owner (Mary Steenburgen) of a motel they stay at one night while Stephen's seduction of sorts of a woman he meets in a laundromat lands him in hot water with her none-too-amused husband. Oh yeah, they also succumb to the charms of nature and come to terms with their lives and stuff like that as well.

I have not actually read Bryson's book--to be honest, the only thing less appealing to me than reading about some guy's extended hike in the woods would be to make the hike myself--but based on the caliber of the acting talent involved, I suppose I went into it thinking that there would be something of substance to it that would make it seem more than just a couple of grumpy old men stumbling through the woods. How it compares to the book is something I cannot say but the resulting film is so insubstantial that for a good part of the running time, I was convinced that it was merely luring viewers into a state of calm before delivering a big emotional sucker punch that would bring the entire thing into focus. Nothing doing--the film just gets flimsier as it goes on as it veers between broadly dumb comic set-pieces (Redford falling into a river and getting stuck in mud, Nolte being chased by the irate husband and the two trying to ward off bears) and moments of sickly, unearned sentiment before arriving at a conclusion as meaningless as the rest of the journey.

Part of this is because the direction by Ken Kwapis is as soggy as the stars--even in the context of a filmography that includes the likes of "Vibes," "License to Wed" and "He's Just Not That Into You," this is weak stuff. Part of it is due to the simple fact that, despite its factual basis, I did not believe a single moment of anything that I saw--indeed, the only plausible scene in it is the one where the Emma Thompson character demolishes the pro-hike position so completely that the fact that the film doesn't end right there demonstrates just how hollow the whole enterprise is. Although I am sure that some observers will be deluded enough to compare it with the thematically similar but infinitely better "Wild," it actually feels more like a lesser version of one of those high-concept comedies that Disney cranked out about a quarter-century ago in which broad premises were combined with familiar faces whose screen popularity was on the wane.

What little fun there is to be had in "A Walk in the Woods" comes from the combination of the two familiar faces and not just to see the very different paths that two of the handsomest actors of the Seventies have taken in the ensuing decades. Redford has apparently been trying to make this film for a while (at one point, it was considered as an on-screen reunion between him and Paul Newman) but it is hard to understand why based on the material he gets to work with here--he may get more laugh lines here than in his recent roles but even his part as the bad guy in "Captain America: Winter Soldier" had more heft to it. By comparison, Nolte has the broader, funnier part and while he does inspire some laughs, he is not exactly challenging himself either.

Watching the two of them go through their unconvincing paces, I found myself wishing that someone had filmed the two of them hanging out between shots and during meals and released that on the basis that it would be funnier, smarter and more interesting than any of the stuff they were doing in front of the camera. Then again, they get stuff to do, which is more than you can say about the women in the film--Thompson gets a couple of good scenes early on and her tart intelligence is sorely missed once she departs, Schaal does another version of her patented hyperactive weirdo character without doing anything funny along the way and Steenburgen winds up doing the same thing she did in the similarly dire "Last Vegas" by smiling warmly and helping to guide an old fart through his late-life identity crisis.

"A Walk in the Woods" isn't a terrible movie by any means and older viewers may find themselves responding to its very modest charms, if only because it is a film that does not involve superheroes, car chases or explosions. However, there is so little of substance going on that all I could do while watching it was wonder what it was about the project that convinced the talent involved to sign on for it and what kept them coming back after they presumably realized that this was not going to be a highlight of their respective filmographies. Put it this way--watching it is probably more entertaining than spending 104 minutes wandering around in the woods but not by much.

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originally posted: 09/03/15 00:56:26
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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  02-Sep-2015 (R)
  DVD: 29-Dec-2015


  03-Sep-2015 (M)
  DVD: 29-Dec-2015

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