Robert Redford recently gave one of the best performances of his career in All is Lost, the story of a man struggling to survive at sea. We’ve been getting a lot of other man vs. wild stories as of late, from Into the Wild, to Wild, to 127 Hours. A Walk in the Woods, which also stars Redford, is like the sitcom version of one of the aforementioned movies. Unfortunately, there are a lot of sitcoms that are funnier than A Walk in the Woods and have done the great outdoors premise better. Let’s just say this is one of those movies that could’ve used a laugh track.
Redford plays Bill Bryson, an aging travel writer who claims he’s not retired despite having not written anything in years. Wanting to get back to his roots, Bill decides to hike 2,200 miles across the Appalachian Trail. His loving wife (Emma Thompson) is of course skeptical about this venture. She won’t let her husband go unless someone else accompanies him. After going through every friend and acquaintance in his Rolodex, Bill settles on taking his estranged pal Stephen (Nick Nolte). While not in the best shape, Stephen has nothing better to do than hike through the wilderness for a few months and jumps at the opportunity.
So the guys set off on their journey of self-discovery. Naturally, they cross paths with several eccentric characters along the way, including Nick Offerman as a stone-faced camping supplies salesman, Mary Steenburgen as a humble motel owner, and Kristen Schaal as an obnoxiously lovable fellow hiker. While these supporting players are fun, all of them disappear before they can amount to anything much. A Walk in the Woods is full of characters and subplots that the filmmakers begin to build up, but there’s ultimately zero payoff.
To be fair, though, those people aren’t the focus of the movie. The emphasis is on Redford and Nolte, who are both well suited for their roles and have strong chemistry. It’s just too bad they aren’t given smarter material to work with. Occasionally, we see glimpses of a better buddy movie that Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau might have starred in decades ago. For the most part, however, we just get tired clichés involving bear attacks and walking through mud (at least I hope it’s mud). There are also several sentimental scenes where the two discuss their lives, regrets, hopes, and accomplishments, but that’s nothing special.
In the end, we have a film that often feels like listening to one of your grandpa’s boring, old stories you’ve already heard a million times before. You know all the wisdom he’s going to impart, you know all the jokes he’s going to tell, and you know that he’s not going to offer anything new. Since grandpa’s heart is in the right place, you may feel compelled to just keep your mouth shut and listen. You’re going to be constantly checking your watch until his story is finally over, though.