Reviewer: Larry Oliver
Director: Ken Kwapis
Stars: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson
Released:18th September 2015 (UK)
If I had read Bill Bryson’s 1998 travel book, A Walk in the Woods, I might be disappointed by the film version, which is produced by and starring Robert Redford as Bryson. Redford, a lot more wrinkled than we usually see him, is an unlikely ringer for the author. The real Bryson has what I call ‘university cultivated facial hair’. He’s a lot younger than Redford and, if the book reviews are anything to go by, a lot funnier. But Redford brings his own concerns – and gravitas – to the project, nicely balanced by co-star Nick Nolte (in Down and Out in Beverly Hills mode) as co-walker Stephen Katz, out of shape, off the booze and avoiding (in the film at least) a thirty-day jail sentence.
Screenwriters Rich Kerb and Bill Holderman and director Ken Kwapis nicely set up an ageing Bryson uncomfortably interviewed on television – why no travel books about America? When thanked for his attendance at a funeral, he says, ‘my pleasure’. The cause of Bryson’s poor social skills isn’t explored in the film. At a certain point – I would venture ten minutes in – Bryson stops and Redford takes over.
The casting of Emma Thompson as Mrs Bryson also throws you. When Bill is called gramps, at first you think she is his daughter. But no, the seventy-something Redford has a fifty-something screen wife – the character is a nurse from England no less. Thompson and Redford have easy screen chemistry, though Mrs Bryson uses language so well, you would have assumed she was the writer in the family.
It is she who insists that her husband, who found a sign indicating the 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail right on his doorstep, take a travelling companion, to prevent him from being eaten by bears, stricken by disease, or being left to decompose having become trapped 127 Hours-style. Katz, with whom Bryson fell out after a trip around Europe – he still owes him $600 – is not the ideal choice.
For cinema goers, the walk has a certain déjà vu. It was less than a year ago that we watched Cheryl Strayed – Reese Witherspoon – negotiate the Pacific Coastal Trail in Wild. Here we have another long walk across forbidding terrain. Experienced walkers manage 14 miles a day for good reason – a lot of it is up; the Appalachians are a mountain range. Early on, Bryson – always called by his last name – and Katz are passed by young school children. They are desperately out of shape and having the wrong
supplies – noodles, which as another walker (Kristen Schaal, essentially reprising her role in Last Man on Earth) tells them have zero protein.
But the journey is less about the distance than their reasons for walking. The real Bryson was attempting to reconnect with America. The screen Bryson tells Katz about the three types of rock that they can see and laments the eradication of a species of oak tree – though it is in fact a bad time for a movie to come out to make us worry about trees as a report has just been published to tell us there are three trillion of them in the world. In truth, the screen Bryson is a bit of a bore. When Bryson asks a local hotelier (Mary Steenburgen) for some towels and after a short conversation she is awestruck, he goes full Redford.
Nolte’s Katz is not far from the actor’s off-screen persona. You can see the star signing on to the movie as a detoxification exercise. Redford originally wanted Paul Newman to co-star, but the story can only withstand one film star performance – a pair would have made the movie feel less believable. Katz is essentially Bryson’s minder, but the way the story is told, he is a reluctant and grumpy companion. Redford isn’t about to make a
film where someone looks after his character; if he is going to take a fall – and he does – he and Nolte are going to do it together.
The film is full of light slapstick – highlights include a face-off with two bears (there must be a two bear minimum), Bryson ending waist-deep in a peat bog under a stretch of freeway and Katz being pursued by the husband of a woman whose panties were torn in a local Laundromat. Katz is supposed to be something of a ladies’ man, so long as the women have little choice. But Nolte is so unkempt he is less Rich Man, Poor Man (his hit series from the
1970s) than Beggar Man, Thief.
In the end, Bryson doesn’t reconnect with America. Rather he discovers – and learns to live with – his limitations, being secure in his skin. Politically, A Walk in the Woods is a reflection of President Obama’s America, knowledgeable about history but aware too of the extent of its reach. This doesn’t necessarily make A Walk in the Woods a feel-good movie, but it is still an entertaining one.