Bill Bryson’s original non-fiction book, A Walk In The Woods, is truly a fantastic read. Bryson manages to explore the entire history of the Appalachian Trail while reminiscing on his own life, his relationship with the drunken lout Katz, and he does so with wit and grace. The casting of Robert Redford and Nick Nolte (or some sort of red-faced walrus creature they’re calling Nick Nolte) is promising, but the trailers feel like some sort of mix between The Lion King and The Bucket List. I don’t even know why I try to reason this shit out – I’m clearly going to hate this movie.
I don’t know who the audience for this film is. Ostensibly, you’d think, due to its previous incarnation as a piece of memoir like non-fiction (a great one at that), you’d think there’d be some nod towards those who might enjoy Bryson’s work (the tone, the characters, etc.). But the film, the story of author Bill Bryson’s (Robert Redford, playing it old and bad) spontaneous trek with his drunken childhood friend Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte, looking like he might die onscreen), barely acknowledges that Bryson is a writer, or that his two-month journey along the Appalachian Trail (a 2,000 mile stretch of trail that spans from Georgia to New Hampshire) was one of not only self-discovery but deeply interesting historical research. Yet the film isn’t exactly dumb either. There’s a little heart, and a tinge of intelligence hiding shamefully on the edges of the screen, just enough to pull it out of fart joke and weepie territory and make it overly artsy for the, well, fart-joke-weepie crowd. It’s an entirely middle-of-the-ground, old-person, buddy comedy that is for almost its entire running time painfully unfunny. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever seen Robert Redford, looking his age finally, perform so poorly. You can almost see him reading cue cards off camera, just waiting to board his private jet to some ski mountain somewhere. Nick Nolte on the other hand is pretty great as Stephen Katz, but in a scary accidentally-method acting type way, as in, clearly Nick Nolte has been chasing his meat patty dinners with a few rounds of beer-bonging Jack Daniels and man-oh-man is it apparent. Literally, there are moments in the film when his voice is so ravaged by whatever smoke product he’s inhaling into them that I couldn’t understand his dialogue. By the end of the film I wanted to watch 48 Hours again just so I could remember what this legend used to sound like. I guess it works for his character, but if your body kicked the bucket on screen in service to this definition of mediocrity, you’d be pissed. Nick Nolte would be pissed. Regardless, the film wants to be a folksy, but crass, comedy, a touching story about age and friendship and a semi-educational piece about the majestic world of nature, but it turns out, it’s just a PBS nature film with a couple of cardboard leading actors. I might just tip my hat to both Nolte and Redford’s career after this one.
The film does a fine job of capturing the startling beauty, if not the horrible endurance test, of the Appalachian Trail. It made me want to walk it before I died. With near-dead, half-drunk, cig-throated Nick Nolte. Let me just hit “Add” on my BucketList app …