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Film review: Robert Redford and Nick Nolte grumble and stumble through ‘A Walk in the Woods’

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A Walk in the Woods

Two and a half stars

A Walk in the Woods Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson. Directed by Ken Kwapis. Rated R. Now playing.

Author and humorist Bill Bryson was 44 when he and a friend named Stephen decided to walk the Appalachian Trail, which stretches some 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. That’s pretty old, by hiking standards, but Robert Redford, who plays Bryson in A Walk in the Woods, is considerably older, at 79. (Even today, 17 years after the book was published, Bryson is only 63, with nearly another 17 years to go before he hits Redford’s age.) So, too, is 74-year-old Nick Nolte, who takes on the role of Stephen. Consequently, the film adaptation of Bryson’s bestseller doubles down on his lightly handled themes of encroaching mortality and regret, and also indulges in some fairly broad geriatric comedy. The worst you can say about it is that it’s pleasant and inoffensive. Unfortunately, that’s also the best you can say about it.

In this retooled version of the memoir, Bill is inspired to make the trek when his friends start croaking and he realizes that his grandchildren are nearly adults. His wife (Emma Thompson) insists that he not walk the Trail alone, but he has trouble finding a willing partner until his estranged buddy Stephen rather conveniently contacts him out of nowhere. The latter is in horrible physical condition—it’s hard to imagine that he could even walk two miles, much less 2,200—but they set out all the same, planning to finish their reconciliation en route. Their adventures include an encounter with an intensely annoying young woman (Kristen Schaal) and Bill’s mild flirtation with a friendly motel clerk (Mary Steenburgen).

Following last year’s twin solo-female hiking dramas, Wild (starring Reese Witherspoon) and Tracks (with Mia Wasikowska), A Walk in the Woods at least offers a change of pace, with its grumpy old men and their bickering. Still, the film is almost terminally mild, relying largely on the inherent charisma of its two stars. Redford, whose rarely employed comedic chops date back to his 1963 Broadway run in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, makes this hypothetical elderly Bill Bryson an engaging wiseacre, while Nolte coasts on his standard hoarse stumblebum persona, literally falling over on more than one occasion. Together, they make a cute couple, which is almost enough to distract from the lackluster pace and rote scenic visuals, both courtesy of hack director Ken Kwapis (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, License to Wed). Like most actual walks in the woods, the result, however agreeable, will be forgotten as soon as it’s over.

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