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.