“A Walk in the Woods” is just about as soothing as it sounds — a funny, contemplative consideration of what can and should be done in life brought into focus by two wily veteran actors who, like the characters they play, are obviously not ready to give up the ghost.
Robert Redford plays real-life author Bill Bryson, whose book is the film’s basis. Feeling his age, but not feeling done, Bryson decides he wants to hike the rough Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, even though he’s never really done much hiking. His worried wife, Catherine (Emma Thompson), sensibly says he cannot attempt this alone, dredging up stories of bear maulings and mysterious dismemberments.
So Bryson reaches out to fellow aged types, but nobody’s quite that crazy, until a voice he hasn’t heard in decades comes over the phone. Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), a fellow he bummed around Europe with when he was young, has heard of Bryson’s quest. He’s in.
The question is whether Bryson wants the notoriously irresponsible Katz. That question looms even larger when the disheveled, overweight and bumbling Katz arrives at Bryson’s New Hampshire home. But off they go.
It’s obvious right from the beginning that Katz would rather eat restaurant pancakes than hike hundreds of miles through wilderness, but the two finally do get moving, and the film, directed easily by Ken Kwapis, begins its amiable amble. The partners are burdened at one point by a know-it-all lone hiker (Kristin Schaal), but they conspire to lose her. They are constantly passed by youthful enthusiasts bounding through the woods as if on springs, but they force their own creaking bones onward.
The film’s great pleasure is the easy give and take between Redford and Nolte, the banter of old friends now grown truly old, the memories of times past and time lost, the cranky exchanges of souls under duress. The screenplay by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman tosses in a few unworthy distractions — mainly in the form of amorous temptations — but the rhythm of verbal jousting and walking, jousting and walking, and sometimes stopping to look up at the stars is captivating.
Redford may be a bit too old for the role, but his line delivery is as casually perfect as ever. And Nolte’s physical gifts have not diminished one iota — he can make falling onto a bed feel both momentous and sensual and that grumble of a voice is a gift from the gods. Nolte has three Oscar acting nominations to his credit, Redford has one; In “A Walk in the Woods” they show what true cinematic chemistry is all about without appearing to be acting at all.
‘A Walk in the Woods’
Rated R for language and some sexual references
Running time: 104 minutes