It’s difficult to like “A Walk in the Woods” as much as you might like to.
Pair acting royalty like Robert Redford and Nick Nolte together and send them off on an Odyssean-like quest through the Appalachian Trail in search of themselves based on the book of the same name by travel writer Bill Bryson and it feels like a sure-fire recipe for success.
To be fair, there’s a lot of great things happening within Ken Kwapis’ comedy adventure, which steers clear of the harsh realities of life on the trail like Reese Witherspoon’s “Wild” showed audiences last year. In fact, it’s in the comedic moments where “Walk” shines brightest, though viewers may be surprised by the film’s vulgarity, which features several of George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.” “Walk” is much cruder than the trailers might have audiences believing, with the language making the film a definitive R.
While Redford provides a steady hand as the plot-driving Bryson, it’s Nolte’s riveting performance as a womanizing, crotchety alcoholic who accompanies Redford along the way that audiences will leave theaters talking about. Crass when he has to be and charming when he wants to be, Nolte offers up as compelling a comedic effort as viewers are to likely find this year though the film around him doesn’t quite live up to his performance.
Aside from one or two scenes in the late stages of the film, not much effort is taken to draw viewers into who either lead character actually is. Audiences are simply expected to care about the characters because they’re being played by Redford and Nolte, not on their actual merits. It’s a short-sidedness in the writing that downplays the actors’ performances and limits the overall quality of the film.
“A Walk in the Woods” has the capacity to be on the same level as its counterpart “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” but falls short of this mark due to ineffectual writing.
Emma Thompson plays a minor and relatively hollow role as Bryson’s wife who doesn’t want him to make the journey, though her performance is wasted in the grand scheme of things. Character actress Kristen Schaal, on the other hand, provides one of the year’s most effective supporting actress performances as a grating fellow hiker on the trail badgering Redford and Nolte.
As a film about the Appalachian Trail should, “A Walk in the Woods” is simply gorgeously shot at times, providing audiences with just a tiny glimpse of what life in the outdoors might be like. Some scenes, however, feel as if Kwapis shot them using green screen technology, which can feel jarring at times.
In the end, what makes or breaks “A Walk in the Woods” is the on-screen chemistry of its leads. Redford and Nolte have a good rapport together well worth the price of admission, but their bond isn’t quite on the same “Odd Couple” level that one might expect from this type of film. Go for Nolte, but stay for Redford, one of Hollywood’s all-time greats who deserves an audience regardless of the role.