Monday, July 29, 2019

Film Review: A Walk in the Woods

In 1998 the travel writer Bill Bryson published, A Walk in the Woods. This book recounts his real-life flawed and failed attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz. In 2015, the book was adapted into a film with Robert Redford set to play Bryson.

Bryson's book is an incredibly funny and engaging narrative about a pair of friends that really aren't adequately capable of hiking a 2,200-mile trail. Bryson is woefully unprepared. And his ex-alcoholic and overweight friend is even more unprepared.

These guys are a mess. They literally don't know anything about backcountry travel, overpack and under-prepare for their adventure... And it's hilarious!

The screenplay, adapted by Michael Arndt, keeps much of the humor alive, but is played in a much more subtle way than the book. While the book often reads like a situation comedy, the film plays the comedy in a more straightforward way with character-based humor.

Nick Nolte plays the hapless Katz. He moves through the story like a man perpetually on the brink of a heart-attack. His flirtatious nature with plus-sized women, combined with his propensity for the crude make him an entertaining and adorable character. However, we never really get to know him and what makes him tick.

Robert Redford's Bryson is a different story. We know that the character is missing something from his life and that he is going to the wilderness in search of that missing something. At the end of the film, there are many indicators that he's found what was missing, but we never really understand what that is...

Like Cheryl Strayed's Wild, this is a story about people who are looking for themselves in the wilderness. But unlike Strayed's outstanding book, and the Reese Witherspoon film that followed, there simply aren't as many moments that allow the audience to feel the draw of the wild. The characters, while flawed, don't need the wilderness. And in the end, that's why they didn't make it on the trail...

There are some absolutely hilarious moments in the film though. Kristen Schaal -- one of the finest comic actresses out there -- plays Mary Ellen, a know-it-all backpacker that hikes with the pair for a few days. She follows along making fun of the of the pair, calling them names and putting them down until they literally hide from her.

And it's hard to forget the moment when a family of hungry bears invade the pair's dirty campsite. Bryson and Katz scare them away by... Trust me it's pretty funny.

A Walk in the Woods does not look at the deeper meaning of wilderness and backcountry travel and what it can do for an individual. It tries. But it never quite gets there. However, it does provide for a bit of backcountry comedy with some truly great actors... And for that, the film is well-worth watching...

--Jason D. Martin

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