I learned a few things about myself this Labor Day weekend. First off, I really disliked the history-denying Dragon Blade, which I assumed would be the best thing out this weekend only to lose two hours of my life to bad cinema. I readily admit to enjoying, with some guilty reservations, the rebooted The Transporter Refueled. It’s from such slim pickings that I stumbled upon the charming and enjoyable A Walk In The Woods.
A bit of history: originally optioned back in 1998, with the intention of being the long-awaited reunion between stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the finished product is a reminder that some things are never meant to be. Newman’s passing in 2008 was just one of many things that hindered the project from manifesting on the silver screen, including his ailing health before that. Interestingly, Newman would have played Redford’s role, while Redford would have taken up Nolte’s role (which is hard to picture given what Nolte brings to the table).
There was also another reminder this first weekend of September, something that only comes around this time of the year: Awards Season is nearly among us. While I may not agree with many of the eventual nominees or awards handed out, there’s nothing wrong with aiming for a memorable cinematic experience. If nothing else, here is a gentle reminder that better films are on then way.
An adventure film for the geriatric demographic, A Walk In The Woods stars Robert Redford as Bill Bryson – the real-life author of the book the film is based on. A misanthropic travel writer just returning from living in England for a decade, Bill is now searching for some meaning in his home country, the ole U.S of A. His partner along the way will be his polar opposite, Stephen Katz, played by Nick Nolte with an almost unrecognizable voice lost in his weight and grizzly hair.
These two men – each curmudgeons in their own way – embark on the Appalachian Trail hike from Georgia to Maine, a distance over 2,000 miles long. Catherine (Emma Thompson), Bill’s worrying wife, doesn’t want her husband hiking alone for all those miles, or at all for that matter, littering his desk with online printouts of news clipping that speak of decomposed bodies and grizzly bear attacks on unfortunate hikers. The only logical recruit is an old friend who’s not only lost touch with him over the years, but whose also lost control of his body. Despite his aged appearance Katz exudes an eternal youth, ogling over women with the same virility and confidence of a twenty-year old entering his prime.
A sluggish start on their journey with incredibly slow pacing to match keeps true to the film’s spirit as each man ultimately learns something about themselves and reflects on life along the way. As younger hikers constantly pass by them on the trail the message becomes clear: their youth is flashing by, and all they have left is precious memories of the past.
Thankfully the film never settles into a morbid sentimentality, keeping such things reserved and measured with two likable leads. The plot, sparse as it is, makes frequent stops that prevents character development to really unfold and the overall narrative slows down. These slight diversions serve to help keep audiences smiling (or laughing) as the pair trudge along their set destination, but these moments never feel forced. Helping is a stellar cast that includes Mary Steenburgen (Orange is the New Black), Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) and Kristen Schaal (The Last Man on Earth) in minor, but no less compelling roles.
A Walk in the Woods isn’t as slapstick as one might expect, given the setup, but that’s just fine. Here is a small film that has a bit of charm, a few laughs, and some relatable life experience we all shared, regardless of age. The brisk pace and pacing keeps viewers wondering if these two men will ever make it to the end of their journey, but that’s all part of its charm. While not nearly as profound as it would like you to believe it is, here is the type of speculative and insightful adventure that aims to please – and nothing more.