Dramedy: Two old friends, who haven't seen each other for decades, team up to walk the Appalachian Trail.
Bill Bryson (ROBERT REDFORD) is a somewhat famous and respected author and travel writer who lives in New Hampshire with his wife, Catherine (EMMA THOMPSON). Oddly enough, he's never written about any American locales, even with the Appalachian Trail being within walking distance of his home. Tired of his professional life of recent being just writing forewords for others' works and not being happy about getting older and watching friends die, Bill suddenly gets the idea to hike the Appalachian Trail. That's despite an annual average of two thousand or so people trying to cover those 2,110-plus miles, but only around ten percent succeeding, most at a younger age than where he finds himself now.
Catherine tries to remind him of that and reluctantly agrees to let him embark on that journey, but only if he can convince a friend to join him. All of them decline, but he does get a call from a former friend he hasn't seen since their days of traveling through Europe decades ago. And that would be Stephen Katz (NICK NOLTE), a man who gets wind of Bill's plan and, despite giving up alcohol long ago, would probably be the last person who should consider such a trek.
Old and out of shape, he nonetheless convinces Bill -- over the phone -- that he's the right guy to take along, and with no other options Bill agrees. Starting off in Georgia in the spring, the two men set out on the trail and quickly realize they're not exactly prepared for it, something another hiker and non-stop talker, Mary Ellen (KRISTEN SCHAAL), points out. As they continue on their quest, they encounter other people along the way, including Jeannie (MARY STEENBURGEN) who runs a small motel and eatery and puts them up for the night, as well as Beulah (SUSAN McPHAIL), a middle-aged, married woman who sets her amorous sights on Stephen.
Encountering lots of obstacles and setbacks, the two men continue on the hike, all while chatting about their past escapades, their current state, and their place in the Universe.
OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Dear young people. If you're lucky enough to avoid illness, violence or some awful accident, you're gonna grow old. It's not going to happen overnight, but it's going to creep up on you faster than you expect. You'll start gaining weight as your metabolism slows down. Your skin will no longer appear as it does now as wrinkles, age spots, moles and other weird little growths will propagate. Your memory will start to experience lapses. Your stamina, flexibility and strength will start to wane, while various pains will increase to the point that you'll start making noises more often than not when you stand up or sit down.
All of which is one of the reasons people, and especially men, go through midlife crises as they attempt to relive or recover some measure of their youth. And once that has passed, you occasionally get those who decide that time is running out for one last big hurrah, be that a trip around the world, learning some new skill they've long put off mastering, or accomplishing some physical feat before the old body and/or mind won't allow it.
That appears to be what's motivating Bill Bryson in "A Walk in the Woods." He's an author and travel writer (played by Robert Redford whose growing wrinkles fit in well with a man who's lived a full life) who's trekked across much of the world and lived in various countries. And during a TV interview scene that starts this flick, he comments that writers eventually either drink themselves to death or blow their brains out. When asked what it might be for him, the author, uncomfortable being asked such questions in the awkward interview, jokes it might be both.
Instead, however, and out clearing his head following an older friend's funeral, he comes across part of the Appalachian Trail that literally is in or quite near the backyard of his comfortable New Hampshire home. And, as he later states in the film, being tired of sitting around and waiting for death at his age, he decides he has to trek the entire 2,110-plus miles of it, much to the concern of his younger looking wife (Emma Thompson).
She reminds him that he's too old, but he's determined, and so she agrees, but only on the condition that he won't do it solo and thus needs a friend to accompany him. Unfortunately, that sounds less than appealing to those he reaches out to, but he gets his chance when a former friend who traveled through Europe with him decades ago gets wind of the quest and wants to come along.
When Bill catches sight of Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte, in full disheveled and decidedly out of shape form), he realizes this might be a mistake, a thought reinforced when the former alcoholic decides to regale Bill's wife and family with stories of the author's past romantic flings and escapades in Europe. Nevertheless, they decide to go through with it, fly down to Georgia in the spring, and start off on the multi-month trek with hopes of reaching their Maine destination and not getting sick, attacked by bears, or dismembered by psychopaths as Catherine fears.
Considering the light-hearted approach director Ken Kwapis initially takes with screenwriter William Holderman's similarly lighthearted script (based on the real Bill Bryson's book), it's fairly obvious the remaining screen time will be filled with material more akin to "The Odd Couple" meets "Wild Hogs" rather than a serious combo of "Wild" and "Into the Wild."
I have no issues with that on a conceptual level and figured the teaming of screen veterans Redford and Nolte could prove interesting or at least entertaining. Some might find it that way, but I, for the most part, did not. Instead, it feels forced in most every scene, be that the pairing of the two old men, the shenanigans the filmmakers throw their way, or the all-too-brief introspective moments (ranging from getting old to different kinds of rock, entire species of trees dying out in a lifetime, and one's place in the Universe).
It's not often I check my watch during screenings (unless the film is more than three hours long or I'm noting a pivotal plot element and recording the minute counter of when it occurs), but I found myself often returning to check on the minutes as they passed by, hoping my time with the film would soon end.
I don't know if this is true or not, but word is that Redford had a long involvement in this film (he's one of the producers) and that he at one time wanted Paul Newman to star with him. Now that might have been something. Unfortunately, this version is not (although that has nothing to do with Nolte).
And while everyone talk about it's the journey and not the destination that's important, I couldn't wait for this film to reach the conclusion of its 104-some minute runtime. "A Walk in the Woods" rates as a 4 out of 10.