Twenty years ago “A Walk in the Woods” would have starred Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon as grumpy old men in a movie that plays like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” with a dash of the finding-yourself-in-the-woods movie “Wild” thrown in. Matthau and Lemmon are long gone, but in their place are weathered icons Nick Nolte and Robert Redford as old (literally and figuratively) friends hiking the twenty-two hundred mile Appalachian Trail.
Based on Bill Bryson’s 1998 memoir of the same name, the movie sees Redford as Bryson, a travel writer grappling with growing older. In an effort to clear his head and feel alive again he ignores his wife’s (Emma Thompson) objections—“I don’t think you’re too old,” she says. “You ARE too old! Can’t you just do this in the Volvo?”—and embarks on the Georgia-to-Maine trail.
None of his friends are interested in making the five month, five million step trip with him. “Next time asked me to do something fun… “like a colonoscopy,” says one, until Stephen Katz (Nolte), an estranged friend who owes Bryson money from their last adventure, volunteers to go. Is he up for the trip? “I walk everywhere these days,” he says, “especially since they took away my license.”
Despite their age, their differences and the fact that less than 10% of the people who start the trail, finish it, the pair set off on a journey that will give them a deeper appreciation of home.
“A Walk in the Woods” brings Redford back to the light comedy of his early career but he spends much of the film playing straight man to Nolte’s disagreeable Santa routine. Nolte lurches through this movie with all the subtlety of a drunken elephant, filtering his lines through a voice that sounds like a broken whiskey glass. He has most of the laugh lines and displays good comic timing, dropping well placed swear words and gags with precision.
The movie itself is episodic. Every step takes them closer to a new opportunity for a gag whether it’s a collapsing bunk bed or a bit of mild slapstick in a river. While many scenes are left hanging with no resolution and, occasionally, no real purpose, it’s so amiable watching these two (and their stunt doubles) walking through the woods that you’ll forgive the randomness of several of their adventures.
The guys are the focus, to the detriment of Emma Thompson and Mary Steenburgen who aren’t given near enough to do. Only Kristen Schaal as an annoying over confident hiker makes an impression.
“A Walk in the Woods” won’t ever be mentioned in the same breath as any of Redford or Nolte’s classic films—it’s too silly and the message of leaving home to appreciate home is too obvious—but watching these two charismatic actors onscreen it’s not hard to remember what we liked about them in the first place.