Friday, September 4, 2015

A Walk in the Woods: Lackadaisical stroll

A Walk in the Woods (2015) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.4.15

It’s easy to understand why the outdoors-y Robert Redford would be drawn to travel author Bill Bryson’s delightful 1998 account of his less-than-illustrious attempt to walk the famed Appalachian Trail ... all 2,200 miles of it, stretching from Georgia’s Springer Mountain to Maine’s Mount Katahdin.

After a particularly difficult day, Bryson (Robert Redford, right) and his good friend Katz
(Nick Nolte) take shelter in a small hut, only to discover — thanks to a scale map of the
entire Appalachian Trail — that they've made far less progress than expected.
The resulting film, gestating since Redford acquired the adaptation rights in 2005, is amiable enough, if superficial: a gentle account of two codgers impulsively deciding to tackle this hiking challenge, and the reality check that almost immediately dimmed — but didn’t quite extinguish — their ambition.

Rather too gentle, alas.

This big-screen Walk in the Woods is disappointing on several levels, most notably because we’ve lost the book’s primary asset: Bryson’s wonderfully wicked, sharply perceptive sense of humor. I usually decry movies that rely on voice-over narration as a crutch, but this one begs for just that touch. (Recall how much Jean Shepherd’s off-camera commentary helped 1983’s A Christmas Story.)

Bryson’s rich voice is wholly absent here, and that’s not merely disappointing; it calls this film’s very existence into question.

Not only that, but Redford’s take on Bryson is all wrong. Redford makes the writer laconic and reflective: a man who keeps close counsel, rarely initiates conversation, and responds briefly, if at all. That’s an apt definition of Redford’s longtime screen persona, as opposed to the quick wit, thoughtful ripostes and sharply descriptive commentary that have characterized Bryson for years.

The second major issue is one of actor hubris. Redford may have been one of the best-preserved 79-year-olds on the planet, when he shot this film, but one cannot ignore the physical limitations that nature imposes with maturity. At 74, co-star Nick Nolte looks 90 (which, yes, is intentional ... to a point).

Age, by itself, certainly is no impediment to endeavors that require stamina and physical competence. Age plus an absolute lack of preparation, however, is an entirely different matter. As depicted here, Bryson’s decision to embark on this expedition — rightly recognized as bonkers by his wife, Catherine (a radiant Emma Thompson) — is a visceral reaction to the death of a friend. A sudden need to prove something.

But the real Bryson was 44 when he began his equally mad journey on March 9, 1996. We can assume that his companion — played here by Nolte — was of a similar age. Let’s just say that ill-prepared fortysomethings are far more credible, under subsequent circumstances, than ill-prepared seventysomethings.

Based on the way Nolte’s red-faced, overweight character huffs and puffs his way through the initial modest climb, he’d have stroked out before the sun set on their first day.

And because director Ken Kwapis, and scripters Bill Holderman and “Rick Kerb,” are required to cater to the obvious physical limitations of their two stars, the subsequent film journey — even at its most imposing — looks like a larkish walk in the park. Which also is ridiculous. It so thoroughly compromises Bryson’s actual experience, and his book, that I have to wonder if that’s why Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) retreated behind the “Rick Kerb” pseudonym.

It feels like the pointed statement of a first-round scripter who felt his work had been sabotaged by later hands.

One cannot help comparing this powder puff of a hiking jaunt to last December’s Wild, and its far more credible depiction of Cheryl Strayed’s solo hike on the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Granted, that film is a gritty drama, whereas this one is a placid comedy ... but that cannot excuse the way in which all concerned trivialize the genuinely imposing Appalachian Trail.

Or the way that Arndt and Holderman’s screenplay bowdlerizes and trivializes Bryson’s rich, evocative prose.

Heck, the damage includes even small stuff. Bryson’s wife is named Cynthia, not Catherine.

So. Taking the film on its own merits, in an effort to be fair:

Having recently relocated to the United States, after working as a journalist and author in Britain for roughly two decades, Bryson is intrigued one day to discover that the woods opposite their New Hampshire home contains a portion of the Appalachian Trail. Motivated further by a recently attended funeral, Bryson hatches his ill-advised scheme.

Catherine, adamantly opposed, relents only to the degree that she demands he not go alone. Trouble is, none of Bryson’s friends has the slightest interest in joining him ... none, that is, until the long-estranged Stephen Katz (Nolte) phones one day, having learned of the planned hike from a mutual friend.

Catherine hardly feels that Katz is a suitable companion; even Bryson is wary. His long-unseen buddy is a recovering alcoholic fleeing some minor legal infractions: unhealthy, ill-kempt and laughably out of shape. But Katz is game, for some bewildering reason, and — at the end of the day — he’s the best that Bryson can get.

Truth be told, Katz also is seeking an elusive je ne sais quoi, part of which involves a rapprochement with Bryson. They used to be the best of friends, year ago ... so what happened?

(It should be mentioned that “Stephen Katz,” who also pops up in other Bryson books, is an alias for Matt Angerer, the author’s closest friend.)

We then spend a few brief scenes with hiking’s equivalent of a “suiting up” sequence, as Bryson and Katz put themselves at the mercy of an REI clerk (Nick Offerman, always amusing for his stone-faced solemnity).

Rather absurdly, amid chatter concerning backpacks and tents, the subject of footwear never comes up. Nor does the quite obvious beating that our heroes’ feet must take, during the initial weeks of their subsequent journey. Aside from one offhand remark, late in the game, we’re left to believe that blisters, cramps and open sores simply don’t happen. R-i-g-h-t.

(Sorry. Got distracted again.)

Aside from the mild sniping that gradually blossoms into a renewed bond of friendship, the resulting trip is punctuated by brief encounters with random strangers. The aggressively comic Kristen Schaal pops up as Mary Ellen, a chatty, know-it-all fellow hiker who’s immediately dismissive of Bryson and Katz’s possibility of success. Mary Steenburgen has a nice turn as Jeannie, manager of a cozy motel where our heroes enjoy a few blissfully comfortable nights.

Then there’s Susan McPhail’s plus-sized Beulah, a flirtatious vixen who meets cute with Katz in a Laundromat.

Steenburgen’s Jeannie is a thoroughly grounded “real person” who brings genuine warmth to the film’s second act. In great contrast, Schaal, McPhail and Offerman’s “REI Dave” are the stuff of TV sitcom farces, a genre with which Kwapis clearly is more comfortable, having made his rep on the likes of Malcolm in the Middle, The Bernie Mac Show and The Office ... not to mention clumsy, big-screen comedies such as The Beautician and the Beast and License to Wed.

Try as he might, though, Kwapis can’t transform A Walk in the Woods into that sort of comedy. The result is neither fish nor fowl: too staid to approach laugh-out-loud funny, and far too bland and colorless to satisfy even the least discriminating of Bryson’s fans.

In pretty much every respect, then, this project is as ill-advised as Bryson’s actual hike. It’s also ill-timed. Redford initially secured the property with the intention of co-starring with longtime acting colleague Paul Newman, but the latter retired in 2007. (The star wattage of that pairing notwithstanding, they still would have been too old.)

Various directors came and went — Chris Columbus, Barry Levinson and Larry Charles — until Kwapis was signed. Novelist Richard Russo (Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls) apparently got involved, if only briefly.

In an alternate universe, it would have been nice to see what Levinson and Russo made of Bryson’s book. I have to believe the results would have been far better — and much more faithful, in both fact and spirit — than this thin gruel.

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