A nature trail bringing a protagonist to a personal epiphany is not a new story in cinema. Recent Oscar-nominated film Wild showed this to great effect, as did Sean Penn’s Into The Wild and Emilio Estevez’s The Way. These films show nature as a means of escape from reality, an escape from the responsibilities and dramas plaguing our protagonists. Nature then reveals itself as a healing ground, and when the journey is complete, so is the protagonist’s character arc.
When a nature trail movie is also a comedy, as is the case with A Walk In The Woods, a number of problems present themselves. Namely, the close shots needed to shoot a comedy waste the location and the protagonist’s personal struggle that took them away from home can seem out of place when confronted after scenes of humour.
For fans of the book A Walk In The Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail (written by Bill Bryson, who penned the story based on personal experience), this will not be an issue, which is proof of the importance of characters in a story; book fans will more readily follow them across different mediums. However, as Robert Redford plays lead character Bill Bryson and his trail companion Stephen Katz is played by Nick Nolte, both men in their 70s, the comedic tone here is changed.
Both are terrific actors, though everything about their characters’ circumstances seems out of place on screen. The purpose of walking the Appalachian Trail comes across as being about confronting the fear of death rather than confronting internal issues not yet dealt with, which is the case for the book’s characters who actually undertook the journey in their 40s.
The humour in the film is still taken from the book though, which means the adaptation of characters is clunky. The confrontations that Bryson and Katz have with other people walking the trail are not given the character development needed to be anything more than seemingly hilarious generational differences (though Bryson and Katz do most of the eye-rolling). As a result of this, almost every actor’s potential is underused. The side characters played by Nick Offerman and Kristen Schaal are given mere shreds of material. Schaal, who it could be argued exudes funny down to each atom she is made of, is barely able to provide the film with its few genuinely funny moments. ‘Genuinely’ refers to the moments that actually tickle the funny bone, otherwise, the film’s comedic moments come down to bears at the campsite and giant underwear.
While these moments adhere to the rules of comedic timing and are definitely well acted, the style on display here is one mostly used in children’s or family films. The film’s genres are listed as ‘Adventure, Comedy, Drama’, but given the extent of plot that plays out, drama would have to be the one genre the film’s director and script comes closest to providing.
THE REEL SCORE: 4/10