Popcorn: A Walk in the Woods

ˇ“A Walk in the Woods”: Seeing the Forest for the Trees


2 ½ popcorns


By Michael S. Goldberger

Special to the Observer


Because director Ken Kwapis keeps it real, “A Walk in the Woods” may not be as exciting as it is heartfelt and visually enthralling. Based on renowned travel writer Bill Bryson’s true-to-life attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail with his long lost pal Stephen Katz (reportedly a pseudonym for Matthew Angerer), it offers an engaging wrinkle on the buddy film. And, since we in turn are reunited with our movie chums Robert Redford and Nick Nolte as the hikers in question, it’s like getting double coupons.


Act #1, scene #1, Redford’s travel scribe extraordinaire is being interviewed on TV by a pretentious idiot who apparently knows nothing about belles-lettres, travel, or anything else for that matter. We see the polite exasperation on Mr. Bryson’s face. On the precipice of diving into retirement, when thinking folk are prone to sum up and evaluate their life experience, it is hardly time to suffer fools.


Shortly thereafter, the funeral of a family friend further intensifies the need to establish raison d’être. That’s it. He has to do something…something daring, defining and outrageous before going gentle into that good night of the voluntarily unemployed. So he’ll hike the Appalachian Trail, all 2,200 miles of it, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine.


Never mind that only one in four backpackers makes it all the way and that his wife, played by Emma Thompson, isn’t charmed by this mid-life crisis that has kicked in some twenty years late. He is a man of resolve. He’s going. Problem is, no one wants to go with him, the return messages on his phone delineating a litany of old age maladies. Each also warns that only a fool would sign on for such an undertaking. Then comes the call from Katz, boyhood compatriot from Des Moines and sidekick to Bryson’s European gallivants in their wild oat-sowing days.


After noting he’s a bit miffed that he had to learn about the expedition from mutual friends, the self-admitted reprobate, a perfectly dramatic antithesis to the accomplished author, says he’d be willing to reunify, after 40 years, for this last great hurrah. Issuing that Redford scowl of tolerance, Bryson accedes. The adventure is afoot. We rub our hands in anticipation. This should be fun. I’d sure like to go, at least for a piece of the way, if I can find the right shoes.


Of course before embarking, solidly middle class, respectable, accomplished and doubtlessly well-heeled Bill Bryson, now of Hanover New Hampshire, must second guess his choice of companions for what looks to be a daring project. Nick Nolte’s superbly etched Katz is the rag-tag antihero personified. He is overweight, boasting metal replacement parts here and there and, we suspect, running from something back in Des Moines. The travel writer’s wife, apprehensive to begin with, goes into hyper-warp worry upon Stephen’s arrival.


Katz stokes the trepidation by immediately regaling the gathered Bryson clan with heretofore untold tales from when their noted patriarch wasn’t yet a complete model citizen: i.e. — the blonde in Amsterdam; the redhead in France. Additionally, just in case his character is still in question, Katz admits (the verbiage cleaned up a bit here) that he spent half his life chasing women and drinking, while the other half he wasted. Then, without further ado, off they slip into the wild rainbow of nature’s expanse.


At least one fine truth is amusingly dramatized. Namely, those wonderful memories you have of adventures with your best buds didn’t always seem so great while they were happening. In this case, Bryson and Katz quickly learn why such a small percentage of initially ambitious hikers complete the trek. While it’s comical to us from the comfort of our stadium seats, our latter day Lewis and Clark aren’t as quick to see the humor in menacing bears, discomfiting weather, daunting terrain and nutty fellow trekkers.


Winning our interest via the unfolding nuances of their characters’ resumed friendship, Messrs. Redford and Nolte conjure a swell duo of opposites. Making it thrilling without exaggerating matters, the thespic treasures provide a vicarious experience that satisfies both on the wanderlust and philosophical levels. However, while Nolte’s scalawag is exacted to nomination-worthy perfection, Redford’s more thoughtful, soul-searching explorer isn’t able to mine that deeper, subtextual message about the human condition it seems he’s trying to impart.


Then again, Mr. Redford suffers no shortcoming in exclaiming his conservationist zeal, allowing the luscious location cinematography to say those proverbial thousand words. Granted, the ramble you’re perhaps resultantly stirred to undertake may not be as ambitious as Bryson and Katz’s. All the same, heeding “A Walk in the Woods’s” prevailing message will help assure there are still woods to walk in when you’re ready.

“A Walk in the Woods,” rated R, is a Broad Green Pictures release directed by Ken Kwapis and stars Robert Redford, Nick Nolte and Emma Thompson. Running time: 104 minutes