The title of writer Bill Bryson’s comic masterpiece “A Walk in the Woods” is intentionally understated; his attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail is far more than a mere walk in the woods. In the stupendously underwhelming Robert Redford film version, however, the story is reduced to just that: a humorless walk in the woods. Alternate titles: “Watching Paint Dry,” “Watching the Grass Grow.”
Bryson’s work brings a wry humor to any and everything; he was written books on subjects from Australia to science, the history of the home to the history of the world, and there is a comic twinkle in his observations that is his hallmark. Redford is obviously a talented actor and director, but he, we now know, lacks this comic twinkle. The only person who seems to find the proceedings less amusing than I did was Robert Redford.
“A Walk in the Woods” begins with Redford playing real-life writer Bill Bryson who, feeling especially old and dissatisfied after a friend’s funeral, gets inspired to walk the Appalachian Trail. His plan is rigorously disputed by his loving longtime wife, played by an underused ray of characterization, Emma Thompson, and his efforts to drum up a companion from among his friends is unsuccessful. He greets all these protests with words that are defiant, but a face that says, “Who cares?”
Redford’s gloriously wrinkled and fascinating old visage stays frozen in a tight half smile even when he speaks. And when he does speak, he never says anything in explanation of his desire to undertake this journey. I also think he was wearing a girdle.
Enter the would-be comic relief in the broken-down, wild-eyed form of Nick Nolte, a long-lost friend who invites himself along after hearing about Bryson’s plan. An overweight recovering alcoholic who is not physically a good candidate for extensive hiking, he should have been the comic foil to the uptight Redford. However, I haven’t seen so little onscreen chemistry since Hayden Christensen romanced Natalie Portman in those “Star Wars” prequels, a screen pairing which I hold as the standard for unconvincing relationships.
I know there are lots of great movies that have been made where nothing really happens, but “A Walk in the Woods” is not one of them. A grimacing Robert Redford and a shuffling Nick Nolte clash only in the hair department, each a specimen in the best and worst that is possible for the human follicle.
Otherwise, they seem to be locked in a slow but tight race to see who is least interested in the proceedings. They wander across the screen, and we gain no insight into their characters. The dialogue isn’t funny or moving. Nothing is ventured, and nothing is gained.
I realize this is a super-nerdy suggestion, but listen to Bill Bryson read the audiobook of this if you want to experience a lively dramatization of a seemingly straightforward, but singular, tale.