When a retiring travel writer decides to go on one last adventure before retiring, he enlists the aid of an old friend to accompany him along the journey – but when old grudges resurface and bodies debilitated by age confront them, will they be able to complete their trip?
After years of living abroad, renowned travel writer Bill Bryson (Redford) is finally learning to embrace a comfortable life with his family back home in the United States. Following the death of an acquaintance, he is forced to re-examine things and realizes while he’s spent decades writing about different countries and remote locations around the world, he has never once written about the one subject he is presumed to know best: his own home, America. Unsure exactly how to rectify this, he decides that before he retires, he will travel one more time – except now, he’ll stay in his native country.
When he tells his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) he’s decided to hike the legendary Appalachian Trail, she demurs; concerned that it’s too late in his life for something so rigorous, she is unsuccessful in her attempts to dissuade him from the excursion. She can at least claim something of a victory in that her husband finally admits it would be wise not to make this trip alone. Bryson starts reaching out to various acquaintances to invite them. Unsurprisingly, all decline – not just because the idea is ambitious and risky, but also, because walking the complete trail would take about half the year.
Bryson is approached by Katz (Nolte), a buddy from decades earlier with whom he shared just as many adventures as misadventures; Katz offers to be his companion for the travel; since time is running out and Bryson is getting desperate, he accepts Katz’s proposition. Despite immediately discovering Katz’s obvious physical limitations and amid concerns about his sobriety, Bryson nevertheless sets off with his former partner-in-crime on what is anticipated to be an on-foot journey of a couple of thousand miles. But when their age, the elements and wild animals give the pair an unwelcomed greeting, will they be able to finish the hike or must they give up once faced with so many obstacles?
As perfectly cast as Nick Nolte seems to be in the part of Katz, Robert Redford appears somewhat miscast as Bryson; although he certainly comes across as robust and vigorous enough to undertake a strenuous endeavor, he’s not terribly convincing as the curmudgeonly, almost hermit-like author the audience is supposed to believe him to be. Whatever edge the character of Bryson was meant to have soon softens early on in their hike. While the screenplay is supposed to be based on Bryson’s book, the fact that he’s tempted to extracurricular activity by flirtatious hotel manager Mary Steenburgen feels like a bit of a stretch.
One of the problems in “A Walk In The Woods” is that it lacks sufficient conflict. For the most part, much in the way of conflict arises from the various challenges presented by mother nature. Given these two once-close friends are forced to be alone with each other after years of estrangement, one would expect more argumentative behavior between them as they wear on each other’s nerves while the bonhomie from their reunion understandably wears thin. Their environment should require them to face and resolve (or not) the hostilities which drove them apart, but this is absent from the film.
Director Ken Kwapis makes some interesting – if not altogether unusual – choices in the way this story is visually told. There are signposts along the route which the audience is clearly supposed to read, but he moves the camera off them a bit too soon; there is also a scene where Bryson is reading the messages written on the back of some postcards which employs an unnecessary use of voiceover when simply allowing the audience to read them on their own would’ve been much more effective and elicited greater humor in a motion picture that already has more than its fair share of inconsistently effective jokes.