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Movie Review of the Week: ” A Walk in the Woods”

Movie Review of the Week: ” A Walk in the Woods”
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A more apt title might be “A Slow Shuffle along a Path”. But that doesn’t have quite the same ring does it? Adapting the 1998 memoir/travelogue by Bill Bryson, director Ken Kwapis (“He’s Just Not That Into You”, “License to Wed”) and producer Robert Redford hope to rope in some eager book fans expecting a similarly good time.  My advice? Pick up the paperback again and skip this dull ramble.

Redford spent ten years bringing this project to the screen and perhaps ten years ago, when he was just 69, he might have made a better fit for the rotund, jovial Bryson. But I doubt it.  His miscasting is the first major problem.  When Bryson embarked on his 2,200 mile hike from Georgia to Maine, he was in his mid-forties. Now I don’t know Bryson obviously, but having read and enjoyed many of his musings on topics as wide-ranging as Australia, Shakespeare and the English language, he strikes me as a gregarious, chatty individual with a sharp mind and a quick wit. Nothing about Redford’s dour performance is in line with the author of “Notes from a Small Island” or “Made in America”, including his trim, fit physique.

The film begins with a tongue-tied Bryson (Redford) being bullied by an obnoxious, aggressive talk show host as he pitches his latest book.  Played for maximum discomfort, the scene is neither funny nor realistic in any way. This and the death of one of his peers put Bryson in a contemplative mood, and soon he sets his sights on a hike to clear his mind. “I’m not writing a book”, he claims constantly, in what is meant to be a meta-wink at the audience.

Unable to find a good friend to join him on his foolish venture (according to his long-suffering wife, played by Emma Thompson), Bryson is joined by a ‘frenemy’ from his past, the equally aged Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte). There is some humor to be found in the sight of a wheezing, overweight grumpy old man donning a backpack and hiking boots. But it’s a one-note sight gag that doesn’t get any funnier as the film progresses. And sometimes it’s hard to make out what Nolte is saying as he croaks his dialogue through a frazzled voice box.

Scenes from the book that made me roar with laughter are much diminished. Bryson’s hysterical worrying about bear attacks is turned into a stupid encounter with two enormous grizzlies (they definitely didn’t look like East Coast black bears to me), shot with sitcom level subtlety. I could almost see the bear handlers off screen.  Tents collapse, bunk beds collapse and off-color cracks are made at the expense of corpulent women.  Every now and then, Bryson pontificates about the destruction of the American forest and comes across like a boring know-it-all.  Redford delivers his few witty one-liners with such flat monotones, that all of the funny is sucked out of them.

Perhaps Redford is just better these days as a taciturn character, like Our Man in “All is Lost”.  For a probing, profound experience off the beaten track, check out Reese Witherspoon in “Wild” or Mia Wasikowska in “Tracks”. You’ll leave exhausted, but enriched by the journey.



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