A Walk in the Woods

Directed by Ken Kwapis
Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson
Rated R for language and some sexual references
1 hr. 44 min.

You can guess what low expectations the producers of A Walk in the Woods must have had when a film featuring great stars like Robert Redford, Nick Nolte and Emma Thompson is released at the tail end of summer’s dog days. Mop-up duty at best.

Fortunately for us, their low standards are our gain. After limping through a dreary season of summer duds, this film actually has something to offer. While the idea of two guys on a buddy trip may sound like used tread on a set of worn tires, when you’ve got two fine actors hiking together along the Appalachian Trail, a little wear and tear is surprisingly entertaining.

Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) is a distinguished journalist and travel writer who is coasting at the tail end of his life with a nice house, his beautiful wife Catherine (Emma Thompson) and lots of accolades and awards. But he is restless and looking for another adventure to tackle. When he goes for a walk in his New Hampshire neighborhood, he stumbles upon a sign for the Appalachian Trail and decides that the trail will be his final conquest. Two thousand, eighteen miles from Georgia to Maine. Even at his advanced age, Bill thinks he can do it.

Catherine, however, is having none of it, especially since Bill wants to go by himself. Her ultimatum is this: Find someone to go with you, or don’t bother going. After numerous phone calls and pleas, Bill comes up empty.

Then a call comes from someone he hasn’t heard from in 40 years: Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte). Katz assures him he’s in shape and ready to go. Even though Bill isn’t particularly fond of his old acquaintance, it’s either say yes or give up the idea. He says yes. But when Katz arrives at the airport and waddles off the plane, Bill knows he’s in for it. Katz looks like a fat, worn-out teddy bear with a serious booze problem. Still, desperation is the mother of necessity and off they go.

If this sounds something like Grumpy Old Men, you’re right; but just remember that Grumpy Old Men was funny, and so is this film. Writers Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman have delivered a decent script and their two stars know how to deliver their punch lines. Remember Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Just think of Redford and Nolte in the same vein, only now they’re two old farts with nothing better to do then walk, bitch and get in trouble. You wouldn’t think they could pull this off, but in this case, old guys really do rule.

Ken Kwapis (The Office, The Bernie Mac Show) is a veteran TV director who seems to understand the basic rule of television comedy: Keep the show moving. Sure, the film sometimes feels like it’s made for Lifetime, but it manages to maintain its snappiness and comedy throughout, and throw in a little nostalgia about men way past their prime to boot. Ah, sweet memory. It can sure take a bite out of you.

Then again, so can bears and cliffs and snakes and serial killers, which is exactly what wife Catherine points out to her husband, and why this film has a good heart. Redford and Nolte look desperately out of place among all the other young hikers on the trail, but there they are plugging along. If you like underdogs, these guys and this film are real dark horses. Certainly in the history of filmmaking A Walk in the Woods will not be highlighted in Redford’s and Nolte’s careers, but for sheer summer entertainment and just plain fun, it’s worth a couple of hours to watch them travel together. They seem to be enjoying themselves, and if you don’t mind a little guy humor in the process, you’ll be happy as well to tag along.