A Walk in the Woods review of the movie comes after reading the Bill Bryson book of the same name. His account of hiking the Appalachian Trail, (published in 1998), is genuinely funny. I laughed aloud through the first half of the book as Bryson describes his mishaps and erstwhile traveling companions. When the narrative turns into an environmental rant in the middle, I was sympathetic for a few chapters. But life happened, the book was no longer compelling. and I set it aside. Nevertheless, in renting the movie of the same name (released August 2015), my primary memory of the book set me up to expect a humor-drenched travel movie.
With a star-studded cast including Robert Redford, Emma Thompson, Nick Nolte, and an appearance by Mary Steenberger, my expectations were high. Redford isn’t an actor I expected to play comedy, but sometimes actors who have played one character type in their prime will try another as they age. With Nick Nolte as foil and Emma Thompson as Redford’s wife, combined with the beauty of the Appalachian Trail and Bill Bryson’s writing, it should have been a smash hit.
The scriptwriters open with a lot of unnecessary backstory, presumably in order to include Emma Thompson, who was lovely and warm in her role. When the Redford/Nolte duo finally get to the Appalachian Trail and meet the larger-than-life character Mary Ellen, blithely played by Kristen Schaal, I thought the movie was going to take off. I expected at every turn of the trail to meet another hilarious character like I’d read in Bryson’s book. Instead, all we get is oafish Nolte and his tedious series of bawdy anecdotes.
The Writers Don’t Know Their Audience
The script failed the actors in every scene. Apparently the writers couldn’t grasp who their audience was. Sometimes it seemed like they were writing a sixties buddy movie with Redford as straight man and Nolte as buffoon. Problem: there were no laugh lines. If the writers thought the same tedious sexual innuendo repeated ad nauseum by an aging alcoholic Falstaff-type would capture the young male audience, they were delusional. It was pathetic, really.
Sometimes the writers seemed to be hailing the senior viewer, a group they imagine to be compelled to thoughtful reviewing of life choices. But the scenes comparing Redford’s professional and familial successes with Nolte’s failures are awkward, not thoughtful. The scene where alcoholic Nolte pours out his bottle of alcohol is not a climactic moment of noble renunciation because his character holds zero resonance with the viewer.
I’ve rarely seen such clumsy editing. One example (among many): The funeral scene near the opening of the movie shows Redford’s character making a thoughtless comment to a widow. Her startled response that quickly changes to hurt is finely wrought, but the director ruins it. Instead of letting the moment stand on its merits, he carries the footage of her over a couple of takes until it destroys the whole effort.
The Obvious Audience
The subject matter itself—hiking the Appalachian Trail—should have given the writers enough of a clue as to the audience to focus. Out-door-enthusiasts and environmentalists include a wide demographic by age, gender, race, and class. Even though Redford delivers his lines like a callow newbie and his granite face is incapable of showing emotion, a smart director would have focused on the beauty of the trail. Right? After all, the Bryson book focuses squarely on the scenery, the weather, and the plants and animals along the trail, and readers love it.
No, again. The writers could have been true to Bryson’s book and shown us wacky characters and gorgeous scenery. Instead, they turned gold into dross. We get a few lovely views and a couple of environmental comments. And that’s it. The characters abort their hike and go home.
And the viewer is glad of it.