'A Walk in the Woods'
‘A Walk in the Woods’ offers pretty much the experience that you’d expect from the title. It’s a movie about two old white men going for a long walk. It’s a comedy, in that there are some jokes even though few of them land. It’s also clearly supposed to delve into something resembling an existential crisis, even though there’s little in the way of meaningful content here.
However, the flick does star Robert Redford and Nick Notle, two actors more than capable of carving out memorable screen presences. So, the movie isn’t without charm. It’s just not much of a movie.
Based on a non-fiction book of the same title, Redford stars as author Bill Bryson. In the early scenes, he seems lost on a press tour and incapable of saying anything right at a funeral. He decides that he’s in a funk and that the best way to get out of it is to walk the Appalachian Trail. (Sure, why not?) He’d prefer not do it alone, but since he’s now an old guy and his friends are old too, no one seems particularly interested. Then rather unexpectedly, he gets a call from old college buddy Stephen Katz, whom he hasn’t seen in years yet requests a spot on the big trip. That character is played by a red-faced and acid-stain voiced Nick Nolte, which should tell you all you need to know about him and his many woes.
The two old guys who have no business going on a gigantic hike do just that. Along the way, they come to terms with all the things they’ve done in life and the wildly different paths they’ve taken. They also run into a collection of strangers for some sketch comedy-style interludes. Nick Offerman pops up as a very Nick Offerman-esque camping store attendant, Kristen Schaal joins in as a particularly annoying Type-A hiker, Mary Steenburgen plays a lonely hotel owner with eyes for Bryson, and Katz gets into all sorts of trouble when he pursues a lady at the laundromat with an angry lover. Yes, there will be shenanigans on this trip, but only gentle shenanigans so as not to upset the target audience or disturb the sleep of anyone else watching.
The thing about a movie like ‘A Walk in the Woods’ is that no matter how dull, lifeless and meaningless it may be, it’s ultimately harmless, so it’s tough to get too worked up about it. Sure, many of the jokes on display are tediously obvious (ex: “Can you believe those young guys think it will snow? Idiots.” Cut to snow storm.) Likewise, the emotional journey at the center is one of a successful, wealthy and bored white man discovering that he’s actually happy. That’s not exactly something that will make most viewers cling to the edge of their seats.
However, the movie is competently made, serving up a collection of generic beauty shots of nature punctuated by scenes of Robert Redford being Robert Redford and Nick Nolte being Nick Nolte. Redford seems oddly off in his comedic timing (something you wouldn’t suspect from the star of ‘The Candidate’), but it’s nice to be reminded of his genuine movie star presence. Nolte has become a force of nature at this point, a walking road map to the perils of poor life choices with a booze- and cigarette-scarred voice so extreme that it’s impossible to parody. Nevertheless, he was and remains a great actor. It’s nice just to see him on screen again, if only to confirm that he is somehow still alive.
Even in a movie this saccharine, oblivious and obvious, there’s some entertainment value in simply seeing Redford and Nolte on screen again since their appearances are increasingly rare. They bounce off each other well, and while they often kill the comedy, the likes of Offerman and Schaal do score actual laughs to make up for it (because, you know, they’re actually comedians).
Ultimately, if you’re the type of person who would seek out light entertainment about two old guys going for a long walk, then chances are you’ll enjoy ‘A Walk in the Woods’. Everyone else will just dismiss it outright and be right to do so. Why bother complaining too much? The flick serves a purpose, even if that purpose is filling airline programming requirements and retirement home afternoon activity schedules. This might be an incredibly damn dull and vanilla movie, but in a world where there are somehow two ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ pictures, it comes with a proven audience.