A Walk In The Woods

Alas, my hiking days are long gone.  Not through choice but as a sad by-product of an arthritic ankle.  Time was I used to love a good ramble, which extended to ventures up Ben Lomond, Skiddaw and, best of the lot, the full Penine Way – 268 miles over 2 blissful weeks.  I was 17 at the time and went with a school friend, staying at youth hostels and enjoying pubs along the way.  Ah, them were the days.

Seems the Americans do the hiking thing bigger and better than we do.  The Appalachian Trail extends 2,190 miles through 14 States, including risks rare in England – we are sadly short of grizzly bears.  You need to be fit and well-equipped to tackle even part of the trail, so two middle-aged blokes with their best days way behind them in newly-purchased hiking gear probably are a source of wry amusement to the hard core adventurers.

One such was famed writer Bill Bryson, a man whose Everyman charm is well know to British audiences, his books widely displayed in libraries and airports everywhere, and whose adventures on the Trail with a an acquaintance known as Katz are recorded in a book and now Ken Kwapis‘s film A Walk In The Woods.

Let me say this up front: it is a film of little consequence featuring much beautiful American countryside, though its irritations are at risk of submerging the landscape.  Chief among these is the casting of Robert Redford as Bryson, so let’s be clear about this: Bryson is now 64 and was 46 at the time his book was published; he is outwardly amiable, balding and bearded.

Redford is 79 and looks it, thanks to wrinkled visage and sunken eyes; his scalp is occupied by a large and shaggy golden brown toupee that looks like a wild Scottish rodent; considering he is supposed to be on the trail for months, Redford is (almost) always immaculately shaven, which demonstrates to me that living in a one-man tent on the side of a hillside miles from civilisation is no handicap to top class male grooming.

The real handicap is that Redford is Redford and Bryson is Bryson; Redford playing a real life person as Robert Redford does not convince me in any way, shape or form that he is Bryson, however much the studio will have wanted to shoe-horn in a megastar to push the ratings (and Redford did co-produce the movie too.)  Bob, please grow up and play serious characters your own age – it would befit you far better, even allowing for the delight of a nod back to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as our heroes are trapped on a rock ledge that reminded me strongly of this classic exchange:

Butch Cassidy: Alright. I’ll jump first.

Sundance Kid: No.

Butch Cassidy: Then you jump first.

Sundance Kid: No, I said.

Butch Cassidy: What’s the matter with you?

Sundance Kid: I can’t swim.

Butch Cassidy: Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.

Sundance Kid: Oh, shit…

Admittedly Redford is in good company, with Nick Nolte playing Katz as a dried out Grizzly Adams spoof, so precipitately over the top that he is almost a landlocked white-bearded version of Captain Haddock.  As other reviewers have pointed out, Nolte, like Redford, should be doing far better things – as should the brilliant Emma Thompson, here doing what Emma Thompson does better than anyone else ever could.  Alas, she is pretty much wasted as Bryson’s justifiably sceptical wife, but at least she can say she acted with Redford and Nolte, and they with her.

That issue notwithstanding, AWITW tries very hard to be a buddy road movie on foot, handicapped by the fact that not very much happens.  Yes there is the obligatory grizzly bear close encounter, in which our heroes are, guess what, not attacked – though Nolte is attacked by the jealous husband of a woman he flirts with in the laundrette; I know – that old chestnut.

Yes there are various annoying other hikers (Mary Steenburgen turns up the irritation dial to 11), and yes there are various other minor incidents along the way – but all of the above are of no real consequence.  It’s not enough to suggest here are two blokes in middle age trying to recreate their youth and coming out (unsuccessfully) having learned learned more about themselves.

The nearest we get to a dramatic edge is Nolte’s Katz revealing he carries a half bottle of bourbon not to drink but to remind himself of the perils of alcoholism, which leads you to question why reformed heroin addicts don’t carry loaded syringes of smack, for example – the answer is blatantly obvious!

In short, this is a movie that does not gel at any level, nor does it have any obvious purpose, other, perhaps, than aiding the Appalachian Trail tourist service.  You’d be much better off reading Bryson’s book, quite honestly.  To succeed it needed to be grittier and more honest, but doubtless it was worth it for the shot as the two guys stand on the rocky ridge and look down the forested valley for what seems hundreds of miles.  Let’s file under wasted opportunities…

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