- 'WALK IN THE WOODS': Robert Redford (left) and Nick Nolte star.
Fourteen years ago this week, my best friend and I set out to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail. By way of preparation, we had spent the summer walking across cotton fields in Mississippi (not by choice; it was our job, as cotton scouts) and reading "A Walk in the Woods," Bill Bryson's account of his own AT hike with his childhood friend Stephen Katz.
We read that book in the truck, bouncing over backroads and turnrows, sitting under pecan trees on our lunch breaks. My friend would read to himself until his snorting and laughing became unbearable to the rest of us and we made him read whole passages aloud.
When we did make it onto the Appalachian Trail that September, the book influenced how we experienced the trail. Like Bryson and Katz, we were traveling as a pair, and like them we came away with our own trail stories — the conservative Lutheran who demanded a fresh shave and shower every morning, the bear we thought we almost saw. And the next-to-last day of our hike, the man running up a side trail to tell us planes had been flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
That hiking trip was a watershed moment for my friend and me. We were young men on an adventure, and we re-emerged on Sept. 12, 2001, into a different world from the one we had left days earlier.
Which is all a long way to say that if anyone was going to love the newly released "A Walk in the Woods," it should have been us. And it seemed a fitting coincidence that, last weekend, after having lived in different states for almost a decade, my friend and I and his twin brother all found ourselves in the same city, and on the very weekend the movie was opening nationwide.
The movie version of "A Walk in the Woods" is all wrong, starting with the casting of Robert Redford as the lead character, Bill Bryson. (Redford is also a producer.) First of all, Bryson is a deeply funny man, and Redford has the comedic timing of a walrus.
But there is a larger problem with his portrayal, which some have chalked up to Redford's being too old for the role. That's not precisely the problem. Redford is still lithe and ruggedly handsome enough to pull off adventure roles, as he proved in 2013's "All Is Lost." It's more nagging than that: Redford is playing a real person, Bill Bryson. Bryson was in his mid-40s when he took his hike; in fact, he is today only 63. So somewhere, the 63-year-old Bryson is watching a 79-year-old Redford portraying his (Bryson's) younger self. I found it all too much to wrap my head around and missed the first five minutes of the movie lost in an ontological haze.
The visual incongruities mount from there. The trees in a frigid early March already in full mid-summer leaf. Emma Thompson as Bryson's British wife, spray-tanned to match New England fall foliage. The terrible green-screen backgrounds.
And the plot is a disjointed collection of scenes and cameos — including Mary Steenburgen as the proprietor of a family-owned hotel and Kristen Schaal as a know-it-all hiker. In the book, the spaces between episodes are filled with Bryson's internal dialogue, his insights and humor. But the movie has none of this. In the book, for example, Bryson's attempt to cross a multi-lane highway to get to a K-Mart on the other side begets a send-up of car culture, but in the movie this scene is reduced to a shot of a busy street, a distant K-Mart and Redford slogging through mud.
The one bright spot in this whole lagging rough draft of a movie is Nick Nolte as Bryson's long-lost friend, Katz, an Iowan straight out of a Denis Johnson short story. He's puffy and red-faced, and he limps and curses his way along the trail. I'm tempted to say that the movie is worth seeing just for Nolte, and especially for the laundromat scene, in which Katz meets and woos a plus-sized lady named Beulah, whose plus-sized panties get stuck in the agitator. ("I'm a panty-ologist," Katz says.) But not even Nolte's lovable buffoon can make up for having turned a great book into a lackluster movie.
Allow me to offer a little advice. If you're thinking of going to see this movie, don't. Instead, get in touch with an old friend, talk about an adventure you once had, maybe even take a real walk in the woods. It will be time better spent.