Redfords A Stroll within the Woods Hikes In Theaters, Diminished | Film opinions | Miami | Miami New Occasions
A sense of humor will take you far in life, even down the daunting stretch of the Appalachian Trail. In his hugely popular 1998 book, A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson documented his attempt to hike all the way from Georgia to Maine accompanied by an overweight, recovering, alcoholic buddy he calls Stephen Katz. The two don’t quite make it; they hardly make it part of the way. But then it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts, and Bryson’s half-carefree, half-jaundiced observations about communication with nature – and thus with yourself – make up the book. So he describes the morning after the first night of the walk: “The inside of my tent was covered with a strange, flaky frost, which after a moment became my nightly snoring, condensed and frozen and stuck to the fabric as if in a scrapbook with it Breath memories. ”
What does Robert Redford’s snoring look like after a cool night in the tent? We’ll never know, at least not from the film adaptation of A Walk in the Woods, which Redford has finally become a reality after more than ten years. He acquired the rights to the book in 2005 in the hopes that old friend Paul Newman would play along. The project never took off, and Newman died in 2008. Now A Walk in the Woods is finally stepping out like an awakened bear and squinting in the sunlight: Directed by Ken Kwapis – who has made some sturdy, usable conversations, like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants – she has her charming, lively moments, but also many that just feel tired and listless, as if the filmmakers were going through a checklist of all the things two middle-aged travelers would say and do on their trek in the wilderness.
The subtext: Men can do everything, even if they are very old!
The middle-aged past part is key: Bryson was in his mid-40s when he embarked on his mini-adventure. And while Redford, who plays him here, is extremely fit for his years, such an undertaking means something completely different for a man 20 years older than him. Redford himself is an amazing looking 79; his co-star Nick Nolte – who plays the panting good-for-nothing Katz, an old friend of Bryson’s hometown Des Moines – is 74 years old. In the early scenes, one can’t help but examine these characters for signs of old age, such as failing tickers and hind legs: Katz flies to Bryson’s New Hampshire house, puffing and puffing when he arrives. Bryson looks a little concerned about his friend’s condition, but he doesn’t want to do this trip alone and there are no other participants. As the two board a flight to their starting point in Georgia, Bryson’s wife – played by a sane but sunny Emma Thompson – is clearly thinking exactly what we think. How will they ever be able to lift, let alone carry, their backpacks? Redford’s Bryson looks capable, but Katz, with his strawberry-colored face and spare tire, looks like he’s slipping in a golf cart. They fear for her before they put a shaky boot on this trail.
Still, age hardly matters in A Walk in the Woods except as an excuse for a cavalcade of jokes about all the things older men can’t do that younger men take for granted, most of them with bedroom antics. (At one point Katz phrased it correctly: “You know what I’m looking for in a woman these days? A heartbeat and full limbs.”) Perhaps this blissful ignorance is supposed to be refreshing, but it’s really just kind of weird. In his book, Bryson devotes serious space to the tyranny of the backpack, and in both the movie Wild and the book it is based on – Cheryl Strayed’s insightful, layered memoir of the same name – the pack is practically a character of its own. It’s a whole miniature household, after all, that has to be carried uphill. In Wild we see Reese Witherspoon first becoming a victim of the pack and then its master. But Katz and Bryson raise theirs with barely a grunt (though they eventually fall while trying to cross a creek). Perhaps Kwapis and screenwriter Bill Holderman just wanted to avoid the stereotype of moaning old men. But even this small selection is enough to affect the tenor and texture of the story, and to lessen the potential weight of the film. Fallibility and fragility are rarely mentioned except in emotional terms such as alcohol. The numerous betrayals of the aging body are not so important to these characters, even if they are important to us.
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The subtext: Men can do everything, even if they are very old! Redford’s intention may be to portray this escapade as a journey of enlightenment, not a list of pains. The idea is vaguely noble, and at least in the beginning it’s fun to watch Nolte and Redford ruff and scold each other, how they stab each other like teenagers. But after a short time the geezeric gags get tiring, even in front of all this unassailable beautiful landscape. (The film was shot by veteran cameraman John Bailey, the film is pretty emerald green.) Bryson gently flirts with the owner-manager of a roadside motel – played by the timeless Mary Steenburgen – but he’s too much in love with his wife, to do more. Meanwhile, the Falstaffian Katz embeds a strong cutie, only to later have to run away from her angry redneck husband. Hardy-har-har!
Nolte shows spark of life. While Redford looks wonderful for his age (or any age), he appears to be older because he seems to be reluctant for some kind of holiness. In real life, he’s a devoted environmentalist who instills Bryson’s character with hypocrisy: at one point, Bryson gives the bored cat a lecture on moving tectonic plates, and while his fondness for such details is part of the joke, Redford hardly seems to be there. He has some really funny parts at the beginning, especially in a scene with Nick Offerman as an annoyingly knowledgeable sporting goods salesman. But for most of the movie, Redford is terrifyingly un-Bryson-like. Bryson is a thoughtful writer, though he often uses humor to convey his deeper ideas. Redford isn’t laid back enough to be funny and his stubbornness makes this woodland walk more like a march. But he can safely shoulder the pack.
A walk in the woods
With Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Nick Offerman and Kristen Schaal. Director: Ken Kwapis. Written by Rick Curb and Bill Holderman. Based on a book by Bill Bryson. Opens Friday September 4th at Regal South Beach Stadium and Regal Kendall Village Stadium.