Jennifer Takes a WALK IN THE WOODS and Finds the Path Choppy and Uneven: A Review

A Walk in the Woods is based on the 1998 book by travel writer Bill Bryson- a book I read a few years ago- so I was eager to see the film version starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. I am sad to say I enjoyed the book way more (I know, always the case). However, I was not prepared for how much worse the movie was. It’s possible that because Redford initially confirmed he would produce and star in the film adaptation in 2005, and had numerous people in to adapt the screenplay and direct, finally settling on Bill Holderman and Ken Kwapis, this may have lead to the choppy and uneven film version.

Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) is a travel writer, who hasn’t written anything for a while.   After living in Europe for many years, Bryson now lives in New Hampshire with his wife Katherine (the lovely Emma Thompson).   The movie offers too few scenes with Thompson, who is a fantastic actor; she is effortless and does her best to give a well-rounded performance as a character who was truly only two dimensional- her delivery and timing are spot on, but unfortunately she seems to be the only one who is.

Bryson and his wife go to a funeral for a friend, which sets off the proverbial “I’m getting old, is this all there is, I want one last adventure” type of restlessness in Bryson. So he decides to hike the Appalachian Trail, and calls everyone he knows to try to get a hiking buddy. Which brings us to Stephen Katz, played by Nick Nolte. Katz and Bryson were college buddies who shared a few cocktails and typical twenty-something randy young men type behavior while gallivanting through Europe decades ago. The first thing to say about Nolte’s character is, oooof. He sounds like a heart attack waiting to happen on the phone- when all we hear is his wheezing and huffing and puffing; in person he is just as we imagine him: an overweight, burly, crazy haired, scraggly yellow-tinged bearded, bloated, red faced former alcoholic(in fact, he looked oddly similar to his infamous mug shot from 13 years ago). In the book Katz was endearing: a loveable oaf who is crass and ill prepared for hiking over 2000 miles. He is hilarious and we are able to identify with him. Nolte didn’t quite pull that off.

The rest of the film we are witness to their foibles and bumbling attempts at hiking one of the most arduous and unforgiving trails there is. Along the way they meet some interesting characters who, in my opinion, are not fleshed out. A perfect example is Mary Ellen, a self proclaimed expert hiker played by Kristen Schaal who is hysterical and plays this annoying character dead on, but was only in two scenes. I wish we could have seen more of Mary Ellen. Mary Steenburgen also plays a very two dimensional character by the name of Jeannie, who owns a motel that Bryson and Katz stay in for a few nights to rest up and wash some clothes. Bryson shares a few longing looks with Jeannie, but nothing more, and it left me wondering what the whole point was of having her in the movie: does he want to have a dalliance with her? Does he really not love his wife even though its never hinted at? What is Jeannie’s story? Is she lonely? Why isn’t she married?   We don’t know the answers to any of these questions because they leave the motel and move on.

This film had uneven performances from Redford and Nolte– with very simplistic dialogue (an example: towards the beginning of their hike Katz says to Bryson, “you’ve got everything a man could want {pause} yet here you are traipsing through the woods with me{pause}. What gives?” No emotion, no flow). At times it felt like Nolte and Redford were in different scenes all together when speaking to each other—their chemistry was almost non existent. There was a particularly disturbing and weird scene in a laundromat, where Katz chats up a lady who is a little on the hefty side. He helps her get her panties out of the washer which are stuck in the agitator. What follows was a really gross few minutes where he is huffing and puffing to pull them free, all while she is rubbing up against him like a cat. He then describes her later to Bryson.   They go on to tell fat joke after fat joke that really fall flat. It sounded mean spirited and just cruel, not funny at all.

I was particularly disappointed with Redford, who has been in some of the best movies of the 20th century, including one of my personal favorites, The Natural. His acting in that movie was spot on- playing Roy Hobbs as the distant and mysterious character he was, a man of few words but lasting impact. Redford’s Bill Bryson was no such character. He gave us zero emotion during this man’s journey of discovery, of meaning for the twilight of his life; he just spouted oddly timed lectures on trees and animals and how we should be protecting our national resources. Which we should. But it came out weird and disjointed. The very best part of this movie were the breathtaking shots of the scenery along the Trail- beautiful and majestic- I would have gladly paid $7 to watch only that for an hour and half with none of the choppy, unfeeling dialogue.

Jennifer Gaylor is a local mom of two who kisses her girls goodnight, snaps photos of family, friends and unsuspecting strangers, and helps to bring The Bloom to a Valley near you. Check her out at jgaylorstudio.com and jlgaylor on Instagram
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Jennifer Takes a WALK IN THE WOODS and Finds the Path Choppy and Uneven: A Review

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