While A Walk in the Woods could have been an overly earnest weepie or an embarrassing slapstick farce, it settles somewhere comfortably in-between. It’s inconsequential, but it should please fans of codger comedies.
After living all over the world, travel writer Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) finds himself back in the U.S.A., semi-retired, giving inane TV interviews and attending one funeral too many. He decides to hike the 2000+ mile Appalachian Trail, despite warnings that he is too old and could die. His wife (Emma Thompson) agrees on the condition that he not go alone, and the only friend crazy enough to volunteer for the adventure is the grizzled, ex-alcoholic Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte).
The hikers encounter everything from rain, snow, and mud to annoying fellow hikers, angry husbands, hungry bears, and tricky ledges. But they also find a few majestic places and a few quiet moments that remind them of what it means to be alive.
Director Ken Kwapis, a veteran of television and lightweight comedies (Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, He’s Just Not That Into You), mainly keeps things on an even keel. Even if Kristen Schaal as an annoying hiker and Susan McPhail as a plus-size cheating wife are witless diversions, the movie usually veers back on the trail quickly enough.
Potential dramatic pitfalls are handled lightly, or simply left behind. The wonderful Mary Steenburgen plays a hotel proprietress who makes eyes at Robert Redford’s (married) character, and Nick Nolte’s character has a close call with an alcoholic episode. The movie’s strength is in the relationship between the two men, and with Nolte’s comically gruff performance providing the anchor. They sometimes argue, or share memories, but their bond is, happily, largely unexplained and unspoken.