If you’re feeling a little too young for the old guy hiking romp “A Walk in the Woods,” just bide your time.
This same movie will be made in the year 2051 starring Matt Damon and Matthew McConaughey as former sports teammates carrying out a dying wish, or old college friends hitchhiking across America the way they did in the 1990s, or bank robbers making one last heist. You’ll watch not because it’s a great movie, but because it’s Damon and McConaughey and they’re your guys.
Are Robert Redford and Nick Nolte your guys? The answer to that question is the difference between this movie bringing you great enjoyment and comfort, or just being a series of warm moments to tolerate between the occasional chuckle.
“A Walk in the Woods” is based on the book by travel writer Bill Bryson, which included a lot of wisdom, but not much happening. So in the movie, Redford and Nolte happen. They basically play themselves, or at least the public’s perception of themselves. (Nolte even adopts his hair and beard from that old mug shot.) Katharine Hepburn ended her film career in roles like these. James Garner seemed to make an entire career out of them.
Redford is Bryson and Emma Thompson is his wife of 40 years, which based on their real-life ages means they wed at ages 39 and 16. When another one of their friends dies, Bryson sees the Appalachian Trail near his New Hampshire home and considers it a chance to buy a tent and contemplate his own mortality.
As Bryson hooks up with his alcoholic overweight frenemy Stephen Katz, the point of the movie, and their journey, becomes less clear. This isn’t a bad thing. The real point of the movie is watching Redford and Nolte together, and too much plot would have cut into the curmudgeon time.
Directed by mainstream-friendly director Ken Kwapis, “A Walk in the Woods” takes almost no chances. At its worst there are moments of Adam Sandler-esque slapstick, but thankfully none that involve flatulence. There are also cameos that make you think Redford said, “I haven’t seen Mary Steenburgen in a while. Is there a way we can squeeze her in this movie for three scenes? And I like that Nick Offerman guy from ‘Parks and Recreation.’ Maybe he can sell me a backpack …”
Let’s be honest, this whole thing was probably an excuse for Redford to go hiking. Bryson was in his 40s when the book was published in 1998, so most of the aging body jokes and wasted-life hand-wringing in this movie is tailored for the stars.
But there’s a calming effect watching Nolte and Redford do all that walking and talking. The studio surprisingly allowed an R rating, and the resulting salty language brings an added level of authenticity. There aren’t many lessons to be learned and too many jokes seem forced, but they have the old man banter down.
Both actors have proven recently that they can still handle a more challenging work – Redford in “All is Lost” and Nolte in the very underrated “Warrior.” So this film feels less like an easy paycheck and more like semi-retirement. Whatever wisdom is coming out of Redford’s mouth as Bryson, it always seems 100 percent clear he pursued the role because the shoot would be beautiful and he could pal around with an old friend.
Good critics don’t write their reviews in advance, even in their subconscious. But just looking at the cast and crew of this one – Redford, Nolte, Thompson, Steenburgen and the director of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” – it was pretty easy to tell exactly where this film was going.
The finished product isn’t a great movie. But every good actor, and that actor’s most loyal fans, deserve their “Walk in the Woods.”
A Walk in the Woods
Cast: Nick Nolte, Robert Redford and Emma Thompson
Director: Ken Kwapis
Length: 104 minutes
Rating: R (language and some sexual references)
Raleigh: Grande, Mission Valley, North Hills, Six Forks. Cary: Crossroads, CineBowl. Garner: White Oak. Chapel Hill: Lumina. Durham: Southpoint, Wynnsong. Roxboro: Palace.