The Upper Valley is Appalachian Trail Central, particularly this time of year. Not only does the AT run down Main Street in Hanover; but August through September, we are host to through-hikers who have covered the first 1800 miles of the trail and have only 300 or so to go until reaching Mr. Katahdin. And so the film version of Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’ should be eagerly awaited and quite popular in these parts. Were that the product matched the anticipation….
With Robert Redford as Bryson, and Nick Nolte as his friend and hiking companion Katz, not to mention to splendor of the AT, this film should be a slam dunk. And while there are many excellent moments, the film just can’t figure out what it wants to be. Jumping from comedic buddy film to environmental paean to wistful reflection on aging and mortality to adventure documentary, ‘A Walk in the Woods’ is so scattered that it never settles into a rhythm and style that allows the viewer to enjoy the film.
And there is much to enjoy. Start with Redford and Nolte. Here are two excellent – nay, outstanding – actors with an easy rapport that makes their completely different paths in life believable and engaging. Redford’s Bryson is the settled, successful author who has become a bit too comfortable and is looking for something more from his latter years. The extreme adventure of hiking the 2180 miles of the AT is the perfect challenge, and consistent with his career as a travel author. Redford’s resolute, but restrained, style is perfect for the part. Nolte’s Katz, on the other hand, is the dissolute schlub who joins Bryson to stay one jump ahead of legal and personal problems by ‘getting lost’ on the trail. And at this point in his life, --overweight, shaggy and more than a bit worse for the wear -- Nolte embodies Katz as I cannot imagine another actor might do. Katz has ‘overlived’ his life and is the perfect counterpoint to Bryson who, at least in his own perception, has underlived his. But the beauty in their interaction is that each wants what the other has. As they share their joys and regrets along the trail, including in a silly set-piece of perceived mortal danger, both come to realize that life hasn’t been so bad after all.
If this were the core of the film and set in the context of navigating the rigors and the beauty of hiking the Appalachian Trail with virtually no preparation -- as they are constantly reminded by the hyper-hikers they meet along the way – the film would be quite good. But there are too many extraneous plot departures and too many attempts at making this a comedy – ‘Grumpy Old Men go camping’ as I saw one review titled. To begin with, the introduction and set-up to the main event is way too long – they don’t hit the trail itself until 30 minutes into the 100-minute film. And then there is a silly tangent where both men are tempted by their own versions of the Sirens, with equally silly results (although Mary Steenburgen does a lovely cameo as Bryson’s Siren – a role she has perfected in films like ‘Last Vegas’). And a thread in which Bryson and Katz share the trail briefly with a needy know-it-all hiker is cloying at best, and once again completely breaks the rhythm of the film. Finally, Emma Thompson as Bryson’s long-suffering but understanding wife, is pretty much wasted as the nervous Sibyl predicting dire results from the journey: she is portrayed more as harpy than sibyl.
Local viewers will take issue with the portrayal of venues that we know and love. Beyond a quick shot of the ‘Welcome to Hanover’ sign (probably a fake), Bryson’s hometown was actually shot on location somewhere in Georgia. The Lebanon Airport was obviously just not quaint enough for film, and so it is replaced by a brick façade that looks more like a courthouse than an airport. And our local REI at the Powerhouse Mall is too small to outfit such a major endeavor, so a much larger mall store is substituted, Disappointing, but hey, it’s the movies.
If you want a serio-comedy buddy film, ‘A Walk in the Woods’ will likely meet you needs. And given the star power of Redford, Nolte and Thompson – not to mention the popularity of Bryson’s books -- I can imagine that many people will be lured into the theaters this weekend. And I cannot deny that I enjoyed many parts of the film. But it just doesn’t meet the expectations one should have of these wonderful artists.