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Review: How ‘A Walk in the Woods’ lost its way

Robert Redford and Nick Nolte star as estranged friends turned traveling companions Bill Bryson and Stephen Katz, respectively, in "A Walk in the Woods."
(Frank Masi / Broad Green Pictures)

As “A Walk in the Woods” opens, Robert Redford, playing author Bill Bryson, suffers through a morning talk-show appearance. He smiles and nods and vaguely agrees with the clueless host without saying much as he is told various things about himself and his work. It is a moment of small comedy played with a broad edge and is the funniest, most genuine thing in the movie. From there on the film proves to be a slog.

One can imagine Redford himself having suffered through his share of similarly awkward interactions. He has apparently been interested in an adaptation of Bryson’s 1998 nonfiction book about attempting to hike the nearly 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail for some time. Redford initially thought it could provide a final on-screen pairing for himself and Paul Newman, until Newman’s health declined ahead of his death in 2008. Instead, Nick Nolte plays the role of Bryson’s estranged friend turned traveling companion Stephen Katz.

Directed by Ken Kwapis from a screenplay credited to Rick Kerb and Redford’s producing partner Bill Holderman, the story would presumably provide an opportunity for plenty of walking and talking, and in turn insightful, bantering exchanges on aging, friendship and the meaning of being a man in the modern world placed in pointed distinction to the natural setting of the forest trail.

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If only. The film that emerges is based less in ideas and dialogue than in shtick and busy business, with Nolte in particular uncomfortably overplaying his way through, his rumbling, weathered voice now often sounding like some mixture of gravel and goo. Redford, who has never gone the way of full De Niro comedic mugging, desperately tries to bring an amused urbanity to his performance as counterbalance.

Bryson in the book is mid-40s; Redford will be 80 next year. Is the male psyche (straight American division) so locked off and the issues of manhood so essentially unchanging in that gap? Apparently so, though the movie is never interested in going too deep.

As with the recent chatter around “Ant-Man,” in which the sharp, fun film directed by Peyton Reed was endlessly compared to the phantom unmade version by Edgar Wright, who exited the project, it is difficult to compare the film made by Kwapis to those not made by other filmmakers. Yet one can’t help but imagine what previously attached directors Barry Levinson or Richard Linklater might have done with this material, with their affinity for scenes of drifting talk and hanging out.

Kwapis, who has a background in TV and has directed numerous features such as “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” seems ill at ease with letting scenes just play out. There is no meditative or relaxing aspect to the movie, as events are always being pushed to happen rather than allowed to naturally unfold.

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The film has an uncomfortable look-at-these-yokels attitude toward everyone Bryson and Katz encounter along their way. Things reach a low point in an extended bit about Katz’s trying to hook up with a hefty woman he meets in a small town laundromat and running afoul of her pickup-driving husband. There is also a dismaying, dismissive attitude toward women — in particular a motormouth hiker (Kristen Schaal) the pair encounters on the trail — that goes unexplored.

Emma Thompson plays Bryson’s warm, witty and understanding wife, appearing early in the film only to largely disappear, unfortunately, once the pair is on its way. Here’s a rule: If you have Emma Thompson in your movie, use her.

The movie ultimately has little to say about masculinity and male friendship, more in line with the broad comedy of “Grumpy Old Men” or “Wild Hogs” than the headier insights of other films about men, nature and bonding such as “Old Joy” or “Land Ho!”

Despite Redford’s enthusiasm and best efforts, “A Walk in the Woods” is a tedious journey to nowhere special.

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‘A Walk in the Woods’

Running time: 1 hour and 44 minutes

Rating: R for language and some sexual references

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In general release

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