A Walk in the Woods is a rare example of when it’s ok to judge a movie by its poster. Just look at it. Some marketing underling clearly Photoshopped stars Robert Redford and Nick Nolte onto the edge of a cliff. Redford holds his arm up in what should represent exasperation, but his stance, coupled with the expression on his face, screams artificiality; every part of his body looks manipulated to produce an effect. Ditto Nolte’s posture of reluctant explanation. The whole thing looks flat, both photographically and thematically. The image is a perfect metaphor for the film. A Walk in the Woods is a superficial, monotonous mess.
Critical and financial hits like Into the Wild, 127 Hours, and Wild explore the theme of the human struggle against nature, and harken back to the popular German “mountain films” of the 1920s and 30s. Because the genre is experiencing success, it’s time for some poorly made knock-offs. A Walk in the Woods is one of these. The movie is based on the bestseller of the same name by travel writer Bill Bryson. The plan to make the book into a movie began in 1998, but the project continually hit roadblocks until these other films paved the way for its production.
Bryson is portrayed by Redford in the movie, a nonfictional account of the writer’s attempt to rediscover himself and his homeland by hiking the Appalachian Trail -- all 2,200 miles of it. His wife Catherine fears for Bill’s safety, so she insists that if he must go, he take a companion. As Catherine, Emma Thompson is one of the highlights of the film, and it’s a pity she’s given next to nothing to do. She’s the only secondary character that doesn’t come off as a collection of quirks. Everyone Bill asks to join him refuses, and just as he suspects all is lost, his old friend Stephen Katz (Nolte) gives him a call.
Katz is in appallingly poor shape, and he lacks the social grace of Bryson. Since A Walk in the Woods is a comedy, most of the laughs come from this odd couple pairing. It’s hard to understand why these two men would ever be friends in the first place, because the history we’re given leads us to believe they’ve never been particularly fond of each other. It’s based on a true story, though, so apparently that should be enough. Writers Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman don’t worry about making these men relatable, rendering the broad comedy much less effective.
Once on the trail, the movie delivers slapstick hijinks and crude sexual humor that makes Chuck Lorre look like Preston Sturges. An incident involving Beulah, a woman Katz meets during a brief break from hiking, is the nadir of the movie. The two journeymen come upon a town and decide to rent two hotel rooms for the night. Earlier in the film, Katz told Bryson he prefers his women large, planting the seeds for his delight at Beulah’s ample frame. The writers take advantage of this character trait to fully explore the odious “fat people are jokes” line of humor, which culminates in Beulah getting her outsized panties twisted in the agitator of a laundromat washing machine. Katz just happens to be washing his clothes in said laundromat and comes to the rescue. They exchange a few cringe worthy innuendoes, while elsewhere Redford unconvincingly tries and fails to get across a highway, purely so Katz and Beulah can get better acquainted off-screen. The end of the sequence finds Bryson and Katz forced to slip out the window of their hotel when Beulah’s husband comes looking for the man that defiled his beloved Beulah.
A Walk in the Woods is highly episodic in nature, and none of the episodes are particularly interesting or funny. There’s the two friends being forced to share a bunk bed, which ends in Katz’ bed falling through the frame, smothering Bryson. Stealing gags directly from Black Sheep should be a giant red flag that something is wrong with your movie. There’s also the pair running onto the most annoying hiker in the known universe, played by Kristen Schaal. The men become so irritated with her off-key singing and know-it-all attitude, they formulate a scheme to escape her presence. I guess no one told them they could just move off the trail until she passed them? Schaal is unbelievably grating during her scenes. The point of her character is to be obnoxious, but she took it to a level that made me want to walk out on the movie.
The climax of the film underscores the lack of authenticity of the poster. Bryson and Katz fall from the trail while scaling a mountain, and wind up stuck on a small landing with no way to climb back up to the trail. Prior to this scene, the movie was shot on location, showcasing some real natural beauty. This sequence, however, is clearly a set, and looks particularly fake when compared with the rest of the movie. Director Ken Kwapis – whose film credits include Beautician and the Beast and Dunston Checks In – even succeeds in diminishing the breathtaking landscape, too. He tries to make a point about the splendor of the Appalachian Trail, and he does so with the most heavy-handed camera movements imaginable, mostly crane shots. The cinematography screams “LOOK AT ME!” and detracts from what Kwapis is trying to draw attention to in the first place. His direction is sloppy, and the obviously fake cliff highlights his inability as a filmmaker to compensate for the movie’s lacking budget.
A friend was disappointed when I shared my reaction to the movie with him. He’s a fan of the book, and hoped the film adaptation would be good. I’m sad to say the movie makes me never want to read the source material. The jokes aren't funny, and the attempt to inspire wonder at nature also fails. The poster for the movie instructs, “This Labor Day, take a hike.” That is superb advice, and a much better idea than sitting through A Walk in the Woods.
Why it got 1 star:
- A Walk in the Woods wants to have it both ways by trying to inspire a sense of wonder at the beauty of nature, and using least common denominator gags and jokes. As a result, it only achieves being a facile mess.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The real events took place in the late 90s, but Kristin Schaal’s character annoys Bryson and Katz by constantly singing the hit from a few years ago, “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk. That shows laziness, and a disregard for the source material by the filmmakers.
- Mary Steenburgen shows up midway through the movie as the proprietor of a lodge where Bryson and Katz stay for a night. She and Bryson are clearly attracted to each other, but the scenes go nowhere, and serve no dramatic purpose whatsoever. Perhaps the subplot is meant to make us and Bryson realize how much he cares for his wife back home. The scenes are handled so poorly, it’s hard to say.
- Nick Offerman shows up for 3 minutes as Dave, the employee at REI who gets Bill set up with the hiking gear he will need. Offerman doesn’t even really get to deliver any jokes. He is completely and utterly wasted here.