Robert Redford‘s adaptation of Bill Bryson‘s popular 1998 memoir A Walk In the Woods is an unremarkable journey with a short sprinkling of low-key chuckles and a heaving dose of schmaltzy sentiment. As Redford’s travel companion, co-star Nick Nolte manages to give this low-percolating buddy comedy/road-movie-on-foot at least some minor footing, but its not enough to balance the overwrought equilibrium. Mining the material for all its geriatric sitcom worth, director Ken Kwapis‘ internal clock ticks with the fervor of a retiree, as he fails to charge the material with any sense of driving momentum. As much as Nolte’s character drags his feet, it’s Kwapis who lags most. For a film all about the journey forward, that presents a major problem. Read More
Of all the issues I had with A Walk in the Woods (our review) – the telling of Bill Bryson’s failure to complete the Appalachian Trail – Nick Nolte was not amongst them. In fact, he was the solitary beacon of hope shining through a film that otherwise stank of mediocrity. After the screening, the infamously crazed actor looked older than ever, shambling to a chair with the help of friends and family. You see, following the filming of Woods, Nolte had a full hip replacement. His spirits, medium-high, he sat to ironic applause and answered a few ambling questions with surprising tact and clarity. For such a wild man, Nolte has an astute, somewhat rambling outlook on nature, film and the great American trail. And nothing can beat out that gruffalo growl of his.
Q: Did you do all your own stunts while filming A Walk in The Woods?
Nick Nolte: Yeah, I did everything, except the one fall. Bob did that. We didn’t think we could survive it, but we felt that we had an obligation to finish the film. It was truly amazing area. It was like an hour-and-a-half to the location, by car or van, and there were the camels, or donkeys, and a couple of horses, and four-wheeled vehicles. And Bob would ride up on a horse. I was going to try a camel – he spit a lot – but I went up on a four-wheeler instead. The trouble was that they wouldn’t let Bob hold the reins of the horse. I guess they felt questionable over insurance responsibilities. So Bob got upset, and walked up the hill, which was quite brave of him. I always admired him for that. We’d get up there, and there he’d be… and of course all the guys would be up there and they’d say, “Oh, this is a great part of the trail. We can shoot this and this and this.” He would go up to the edge of the cliff, “Oh, you can come up here.” Well, let’s look at it first. Look out over everywhere. I thought we would run into a lot of hikers; we didn’t. We had to use a lot of actors, you know, to be hikers. Not a lot of people ever finish the Appalachian Trail. There are people who have walked it, straight through. It’s not a one summer deal. There are people who walk it for years. The trail runs about two miles from my farm in New York. There’s just a stake stamped into the ground, you know, a metal stake. And it’s up to the states to take care of the trail. It’s an amazing trail, because it had Thomas Jefferson’s dad’s initials up there, because he always said about the Appalachians that it was the barrier of America. We didn’t know what was west of that. It was quite a discovery, when we came upon that.
Q: Would you say that this filming experience changed you in any way?
NN: Oh, yeah. Every film does. They all change you. With this one, there’s a broader perspective. First of all, I didn’t ever imagine I’d be playing a contemporary guy. I’m not necessarily an easy contemporary person. I have a lot of nervousness and anxiety, fear and such… It was very strange to be getting into that, when you’re at this moment, just now, this is it, this is what we play. And Bob, too, I know it’s a struggle with Bob. Originally it was supposed to be Paul Newman and Bob, and Paul died. Paul had offered me a role in a cowboy film he had, and it took a week for me to read, three or four times, and finally told Paul, “Look, it’s a deputy that has to transport ten hookers from his town to another town. I don’t quite understand the humor.” And Paul said, “That’s exactly what Redford says!” We did agree on that.
Q: You said that the third main character of the film was the trail. One of the threads that runs through is the exfoliation of the whole forest, the appreciation of the environment, the whole thing, the awe and wonder of the natural world. How do you see that, given the crises the natural world is in, and the responsibility of the society to see that?
NN: Awe is probably the quality that the artist tries to achieve. But nature itself achieves it. Any activity that goes beyond what we think can be done, and it goes beyond that, creates a state of awe. It’s a very important state, and it’s very hard to create that, on film, or athletics, or whatever. Nature is a great provider of that, and that’s why we’ve got to… we can’t let it become mundane to us. We can’t get egotistical about nature, and consider it secondary, and “Oh, I’ve seen that.” No, you haven’t seen that. You haven’t seen what nature can do. We do have to become partners with it.
Robert Redford‘s adaptation of Bill Bryson‘s popular 1998 memoir A Walk In the Woods is an unremarkable journey with a short sprinkling of low-key chuckles and a heaving dose of schmaltzy sentiment. As Redford’s travel companion, co-star Nick Nolte manages to give this low-percolating buddy comedy/road-movie-on-foot at least some minor footing, but its not enough to balance the overwrought equilibrium. Mining the material for all its geriatric sitcom worth, director Ken Kwapis‘ internal clock ticks with the fervor of a retiree, as he fails to charge the material with any sense of driving momentum. As much as Nolte’s character drags his feet, it’s Kwapis who lags most. For a film all about the journey forward, that presents a major problem.
There curtain opens on Bill Bryson (Redford) plopped in an interview chair and grilled by a Boston newscaster. Between high-browed snaps at travel journalism, this liberal-shmearing mockery of a media man criticizes Bryson for writing solely about experiences abroad. He questions, “Why have you never written about America?” Something twinkles in Bryson as a hit from this overcharged snark battleship appears to sink something within him. Seeing Redford seemed only half-full to begin with, his deflation fails to strike a nerve.
We’re lead to believe that that exchange – in addition to the death of a distant friend – inspires Bryson to reach outside the box and spring for that one final adventure. Now well over the hill, his spirit journey down the Appalachian is not one his wife (Emma Thompson) is willing to broad. Not unless Bill has a buddy in tow.
After a series of cold-called rejections, Bryson finds himself on the phone with a washed-up alcoholic friend of yore, Stephen Katz (Nolte), who he’d not seen since a calamitous Euro-trip some 40 years back. Desperate for company, he succumbs to this only option and sets out to take on the 2,179 mile trek with this “friend” of unenviable gait. Their journey brings them to head with annoying companions, bears and vengeful boyfriends but never fails to feel like more than a montage of mildly assuming moments.
Nolte’s gruff grumbles provide a sense of abject naturalism – an old half-bitter man quietly raging, forsaking himself of bad life choices – that is oddly lacking in this flick that’s surrounded by nature. He’s the only one on the border of bearing his soul as Redford seems to more or less ice-skate his way through his depiction of an aging, intellectual playboy. An uncomfortable amount of blame ought be laid at screenwriter Michael Arndt‘s (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine) feet as the script is flatter than the Georgia section of the trail. It doesn’t help when Kwapis can’t discern when to start and stop the camera. Or where to point it.
There’s a nice moment in A Walk in the Woods where a star-gazing Katz waxes on existence, speculating about just how many millions of stars they can see out here in the great nothing. Bryson matter-of-factly corrects him: only five thousand are visible to the naked eye. Katz shakes it off, “I’m a big picture kind of guy.” If only Kwapis could have learned this same lesson.
Unabashedly sentimental and overtly geared towards the elderly folks in the audience, the overly tender Kwapis filters his comic sensibility through an aggressively broad strainer. The outcome is the equivalent of cinematic baby food: mushy, flavorless and far too safe.