Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Old Men and the Trees: A WALK IN THE WOODS

If you thought the only thing holding Wild’s hiking-as-journey-of-self-discovery metaphor back was a total lack of broad sitcom shenanigans, have I got a movie for you. Ken Kwapis, veteran director of TV (The Office) and ensemble comedy (He’s Just Not That Into You) has adapted A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s book about hiking the Appalachian Trail, into treacly sentiment and exhausted lightness. It starts with a tired old writer (Robert Redford) deciding he’d like to go for a long hike. His wife (Emma Thompson) pleads with him to not go alone, and so, after exhausting all options, he ends up reunited with an old friend (Nick Nolte) who wants to come along. The rest of the movie involves the guys meandering their way from Georgia up to New England, seeing beautiful sights and getting involved in the mildest of comedy antics along their episodic way.

Bryson’s an often amusing humorist on the page, but none of his personality survives a transplant into the blandest feel-good big screen tripe. It’s supposed to be life affirming watching the guys bond and overcome obstacles. In practice, the screenplay by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman is strained silliness mixed with even more strained seriousness. It makes for a pushy blend that doesn’t even try too hard to be manipulative. The characters have little of interest to say, and appear to have no investment in their own actions. We have a few limp scenes in which Redford looks bored at an interview and a funeral and we’re supposed to interpret that as a sign he wants to do something fun and exciting before he gets even older. Later, Nolte comes stumbling into the picture, red-faced and wheezing, obviously out of shape and unprepared for a long hike. We’re supposed to be ready to admire his tenacity and persistence. The easy setup gives way to thin development. You know pretty much where it’s headed at every step.

Kwapis and crew trust that a somnambulant outdoorsy Redford and a blustering stumbling Nolte will hold the audience’s interest. The whole thing coasts on goodwill generated by memories of better performances in more interesting projects. The leads are responsible for some magnetic and riveting screen presences over the last half-century plus. And when their eyes are sparkling and their voices roll out like smooth water over rough rocks, it’s easy to remember why they became big deals. They work well here together, but the material they’re given is dire. Slack and inert, the sad slop has them fall down, eat pancakes, flirt, lose clothing, splash in water and mud, and scamper up and down leafy hills. Then they’ll pause, staring slack jawed at some gorgeous vista before moving on, platitudes piled up on lovely landscapes before another bout of vaguely humorous scenarios. It’s never all that funny, but at least its rarely punishingly mean.

At it’s best, we see the two old men moving silently through fields and trees in insipid wide shots that could easily be repurposed in ads for life insurance, retirement accounts, or erectile dysfunction. But soon they are back mixing it up with a parade of cameos, rolling their eyes at a camping expert (Nick Offerman), young people (fit bros, squeaky boy scouts, and the like), a flirty hotel proprietor (Mary Steenburgen), and an annoying know-it-all woman (Kristen Schaal). The musty perspective in which these guys feel self-righteously validated in scoffing at all women and children is strange, but convincingly old-white-guy. As they bond by getting snowed on, angering hicks, and confronting a bear (seeing Nolte standing up trapped in his tent hollering at a wild animal is a real standout moment) the Hallmark glitter is chokingly dusted as the music swells and the trees sway in the breeze. And then it’s over.

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