A Walk in the Woods

Movie Information

The Story: Two grumpy codgers set off to walk the Appalachian Trail. The Lowdown: Loose adaptation of the popular memoir by Bill Bryson re-fitted for its stars and played for broad comedy as an odd-couple buddy comedy — not very successfully. Probably harmless, but largely mediocre.
Genre: Comedy Adventure
Director: Ken Kwapis (License to Wed)
Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Nick Offerman
Rated: R



Ken Kwapis’ A Walk in the Woods is the sort of boomer-bait designed to work best with viewers who find it hysterically funny to hear old folks indulge in outbursts of various permutations of the “f” word. While I am not in the least bothered by the elderly swearing in the movies (I’ve certainly done my share of swearing at the movies, especially during the trailers), I can’t say I find it convulsingly funny. The concept has a central problem: What’s amusing once because it’s unexpected is neither amusing, nor unexpected on the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth go around. This, however, is not my only issue with the movie, which is essentially Grumpy Old Men Go Camping. I have no doubt that there’s an audience for the movie — my mother would have loved it and I know at least one person who will blast me for not loving it (and cite my fondness for I Heart Huckabees as proof of how ill-suited I am to judge movies). I am simply not that audience.




What we have here is exactly the sort of slapdash sitcom movie I expected from Ken Kwapis, whose career highpoint remains Dunston Checks In (1996), a movie that explored the comedic possibilities of an orangutan in a posh hotel. (It is possible that Mr. Kwapis approached his new film with the idea that Nick Nolte was Dunston, or a kind of talking, horny old man variant.) The writing, the staging, the pacing, the lighting, the acting all have that sitcom feeling. It doesn’t help matters that the proceedings have been approached purely in terms of a star-vehicle buddy-comedy for Robert Redford and Nolte — which is to say that Bill Bryson’s book (and his character) has been reconfigured to suit the ages of the stars. This, in turn, changes the point of the story. I’m not saying that the filmmakers don’t have every right to make whatever changes suit their purposes. They do. But it helps if those changes are…well, actually good. These aren’t.




The problem isn’t so much that the story had to be remonkeyed to make the 40-something Bryson and Steve Katz into 79-year-old Redford and 74-year-old Nolte. Improbable, yes, but it could have been more or less workable, except that the film insists on playing it all for what can only be called maximum forced wackiness. We’re talking the kind of wackiness that translates into gags like what happens when you put the portly Nolte on the bunk over Redford — with the expected results. It made me slap my knee in hilarity, I can tell you — but only if I lie about it. The funniest bit involves a TV interview Bryson suffers through, and it’s unfortunately at the beginning of the film.




There’s less a story here than a series of quirky encounters wrapped around a couple of old duffers bickering and complaining — all of it grounded in the idea that the presence of Messrs. Redford and Nolte will make it somehow palatable. Whether or not that’s true is a personal call, but it’s certainly worth noting that broad comedy is hardly Redford’s strong suit. I suppose the idea was that it would be the geriatric version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which made more sense when it was intended to co-star Paul Newman. But with this script? No. There’s somewhat less here as a depiction of walking the Appalachian Trail. The film can’t even be bothered to keep track of where we are. The film just sort of magically seems to jump from Georgia to Virginia with no sense of progression. For most of the time, the setting could be just about anywhere in any old woods. Then again, this is a movie with a screenplay that seems to believe the Trail is rife with grizzly bears.




It’s not so much that the movie is actively bad — well, the largely dismissive attitude toward women is pretty bad — as that it’s almost aggressively mediocre. Oh, it won’t do you any kind of serious damage should you encounter it, but I doubt it’s likely to enrich your life in any significant manner. Rated R for language and some sexual references.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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13 thoughts on “A Walk in the Woods

  1. Jim Hargan

    According to Wikipedia the director used Amicalola Falls SP in Georgia as a stand-in for about “one third” of the trail. (If memory serves the real Bryson and Katz quit at Newfound Gap, 111 miles from the trail’s southern terminus.) So I don’t even need to watch it for local scenery! Think I’ll queue up “My Fellow Americans” instead, for the old Rock Cafe in Marshall and the Marching Dorothies in downtown Asheville. Bet it’s funnier, too.

    • Jim Hargan

      My bad! I calculated the distance B&K traveled by using Google Maps set to walking. Turns out Google completely ignores the AT and sends you walking down main roads.

      The real distance is 207 miles, according to http://www.atdist.com/atdist. That makes more sense!

  2. mtndancer

    I was dubious when I heard the movie was being made because much of what made the book was Bryson’s research and commentary. If only the scriptwriters had paid attention to the book, they would have known there are no Grizzlies on the AT.

    • Edwin Arnaudin

      Not to defend this “extremely OK” movie, but the actual bears that show up are black bears, so it’s tough to tell if it’s the writers’ error or Redford’s or if it’s another way of conveying that Bryson is out of his element.


      • Ken Hanke

        You are being awfully kind here — calling it “extremely OK” and that far-fetched excuse that the otherwise fairly erudite Bryson wouldn’t know these weren’t Grizzlies.

        • Edwin Arnaudin

          He’s an Iowan living in New England – so, no, he may think all bears are Grizzlies.

          • Edwin Arnaudin

            …no disrespect to Iowans or New Englanders…

          • Ken Hanke

            No. Just no. There’s nothing — except your charity — to support this. It is my understanding, in fact, that in the book they merely hear a noise with no actual bear action. Of course, the film can’t resist the urge to turn this anecdote into Yet Another Broad Gag.

          • SJW

            Really mystifying how all of you are misunderstanding what happened. Redford sees the bears and after a panicky moment where he naively thinks they are grizzlies and they should play dead, he comes to senses, checks his book and realizes they are black bears and they should scare them off by appearing as large and noisy as they can. Which is what happens. But clearly the scriptwriters knew there were no grizzlies in the eastern U.S., the Bryson character didn’t, or more accurately Bryson forgot for a moment!

  3. Bob Voorhees

    Robert Redford seems to be a serious reader and apparently likes to transmogrify books into movies. In Robert Pirsig’s second novel, “Lila”, Redford makes an appearance at Pirsig’s New York apartment to negotiate with Redford about making a movie of “Zen and the Art”. Didn’t happen. The negotiations stalled when Pirsig began to have second thoughts about what might happen to his “culture-bearing” novel. Bryson should have entertained such doubts. To be made into a movie, a novel must have a significant element of plot. Two old guys stumbling down the road and then falling off of it won’t do. It was nice to see Nolte vertical, however. Perhaps this was Redford’s gift to him.

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