Movie Review: A Walk in the Woods (2015)
I would’ve gone with Paul Giamatti, too. Then you could cast Thomas Hayden Church as Stephen Katz, have him put on weight, get yourself a good “Sideways” reunion.
With Redford, I assumed the biggest problem would be his age. He’s owned the rights to Bill Bryson’s book since its publication in 1998, and originally considered it a vehicle for a reunion with Paul Newman. That might’ve worked. But even back then Redford was 62 (and fit), and Newman 74 (and fit), so not exactly the out-of-shape fortysomethings Bryson and Katz were when they hiked the Appalachian Trail.
Now Redford is 79, and Nick Nolte, the new Katz, is 74, and not exactly a spry 74, either. That turns out to be a problem. Middle age is funny, old age isn’t. Midlife crises are funny, funerals aren’t. Given Redford, Nolte isn’t bad casting, since Katz is supposed to be a fuck-up—the guy bringing candy bars on the trail, abandoning his gear when it gets too heavy, etc.—and Nolte can do fucked up. But his face and body are so wrecked now that his donut-sprinkled mouth doesn’t make us laugh the way it should. We cringe.
But Redford’s the bigger problem. He’s just not funny enough to play Bryson.
Beginning Bryson, becoming Redford
Have you read “A Walk in the Woods”? I don’t know if I’ve laughed harder at a book. It was so funny that the next book I read, “Me Talk So Pretty” by David Sedaris—considered humorous by most people—seemed like shit to me. I didn’t even finish it.
Redford turns this book into his own vehicle. Instead of open and engaged, his Bryson is closed and suspicious. He’s a successful American writer, returned from England, tired of going to funerals, tired of seeing his grandkids waste their lives with video games. Early on, he gets off some good dry line-readings; then he becomes pedantic and the line-readings fall flat. Environmentalism is Redford’s cause, and bless him for it, but he makes it Bryson’s cause, too. Or he turns his Bryson from a guy who never hikes to one who knows everything in the woods. The further they go, the preachier he gets.
The dilemma of making “Woods” into a movie is similar to the dilemma of making “Moneyball” into a movie: the real story doesn’t have a Hollywood ending. In “Moneyball,” the A’s don’t win the pennant and in “A Walk in the Woods” Bryson and Katz don’t finish the Appalachian Trail. They hike and hike and hike, and when it seems like they’ve been hiking forever they find a map and realize they’ve barely gone anywhere: two states out of a dozen. So they cut their losses. They skip a huge chunk and then leave it. Bryson hikes the last bit alone in the fall in New England.
In the movie, we get the map scene, and yes, Katz talks about driving the Appalachian Trail; then Bryson convinces him to keep going. Then they have a near-death experience and Bryson lets Katz go. He lets them leave the trail and return home: Katz to Iowa, Bryson to New Hampshire and his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson, 23 years younger than Redford, and underutilized).
So where’s the poignancy? What’s the lesson?
Guys like us
In “Moneyball,” Aaron Sorkin and Bennett Miller make it less about the clarity of winning than the murkiness of everything else: being first through the wall and getting bloody; hitting a homerun and not realizing it; being a little bit caught in the middle. Billy Beane wins by losing, but he can’t shake the loss. It sticks to him.
In “A Walk in the Woods,” director Ken Kwapis (“The Office”), and first-time screenwriters Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, create false drama. This Bill Bryson hasn’t written anything in four years; and during the hike, several times, he says he’s not going to write about the hike. Then he gets home and writes about the hike. He opens his laptop and types: “A Walk in the Woods.” That’s cute, but: 1) I saw it coming, 2) I don’t buy the conceit, and 3) it’s not exactly poignant.
But the main problem with the movie is still the casting.
At one point, Bryson and Katz talk up their early, rapscallion days. A pretty girl is mentioned, and they say she was the kind of girl who didn’t wind up “with guys like us.” Guys like us. Redford? It made me flash back to a scene from William Goldman’s great book about Hollywood, “Adventures in the Screen Trade.” Goldman, the screenwriter, is on a 1972 location shoot just outside a prison for Redford’s new movie, “The Hot Rock.” He’s chatting with a nearby prison guard. And, unbidden, and without heat, the prison guard offers the following comments about Redford:
“My wife would like to fuck him.”
“I mean, you don’t know what she would give just to fuck him.”
“She said to me today, my wife, that she would get down on her hands and knees and crawl just for the chance to fuck him one time.”
Guys like us.
Seriously, Giamatti would’ve been perfect.