This review is also up at Channel 24
What it's about
Based on Bill Bryson's beloved autobiographical travel book, we find Bryson (Robert Redford), older and living the quiet life with his wife in their suburban American home after two decades living in England. It's not long, however, before his general restlessness and unending passion for travel leads him to try hiking the punishing Appalachian Trail with a decidedly out of shape old friend (Nick Nolte) – all in the spite of the protests of his wife (Emma Thompson) and just about everyone else who knows him.
What we thought
A Walk in the Woods has generally not been particularly well received by overseas critics and, as near as I can tell, by many a Bill Bryson fan, but I'm slightly at a loss as to why this is. I haven't yet read the book on which the film is based and have only recently gotten into Bryson's work in general (based on what little I have read, though, his reputation as a funny and engaging non-fiction writer is very well earned) but regardless of how much the film may depart from its source, it's hard to believe that anyone wouldn't be utterly charmed by the end result.
The film has long been a passion project for Robert Redford – so long, in fact, that it was originally envisioned as being a reunion project for Redford and his long-time partner in crime, the much-missed Paul Newman – and though that does mean that Redford overlays a lot of his own personality onto the Bryson character here, he also imbues the film with enough heart and wit to more than do justice to a writer who is known for both.
I suppose it would be possible to criticize the film for its meandering plot, its half-assed eco-friendly pontificating and its overt sentimentality - but that's rather missing the point.
This is a film about a couple of aging men whose best days may well be passed them but who are certainly not just willing to go gently into that good night, while at the same time never being quite able to escape their pasts. Even the moments that seem to be your garden variety preachy environmentalism are actually mostly metaphors about legacy and being swept away by that which is younger and fitter. Similarly, the more sentimental aspects of the film are a fitting reflection of how growing older often causes people to cut the crap, emotionally, and wear their hearts just a bit more openly on their sleeves.
As for the meandering plot, that's less a weakness and more of a generic convention of the road-trip/ walkabout genre. It's interesting, in fact, to compare and contrast A Walk in the Woods with the recent Reese Witherspoon movie, Wild. Both use the convention of having their lead characters go on walkabout to find themselves and both are far more about character than they are about plot. Where they diverge, though, is in their respective tones.
It's easy to see Wild as the superior film (and maybe it is) as it is significantly more seriously minded and far more unflinching in dealing with its character's challenges, both on the trail itself and in her mind, but there is something to be said for the wonderful lightness of touch that A Walk in the Woods employs and even for the larger strokes by which it paints its characters. It clearly has something to say, but that doesn't mean it can't have fun doing it.
Redford plays his character with knowing wryness while Nick Nolte is rambunctious, gruff and bawdily hilarious – and even if the latter's character is largely a fictionalized composite of a number of real-life people, it's his interplay with Redford's Bryson that makes the film pop. We also have a very impressive a-list supporting cast, including Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Nick Offerman and Kristen Schaal, whose roles may be very small but they're generally pretty memorable foils for our two heroes to play against. I could definitely have done with more of Emma Thompson as Bryson's loving, long-suffering wife but when can any of us not do with a bit more Emma Thompson?
Ultimately, it may seem slight but A Walk in the Woods is a big-hearted, endlessly funny and just plain likable survivalist-buddy-road-trip-comedy-drama that also has something to say: really, what more could you possibly want?