By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Noel Coward was wrong.
Sometimes the right people travel. And sometimes, we get to go with them. At the movies, at least.
Robert Redford and Nick Nolte would seem very much the wrong people to be traveling in this adaptation of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.”
For starters, Bryson’s book was a kind of tenderfoot travelogue, not a bucket-list lovable-old-coot blow-out. That is, Bryson and his pal, Stephen Katz, were ordinary, somewhat out-of-shape guys in their mid-forties.
Redford (Bryson) and Nolte (Katz) are well into their seventies. The former is 77, not that you’d now it. Maybe it’s that Rocky Mountain high…
The latter is 74 – and looks every minute of it. Cheerfully playing off his, um, distressed state, Nolte suggests a cross between his infamous DUI mug shot and a shabby, second-tier Kris Kringle (the kind whose lap you’d rather your kids avoid).
So right off the bat, especially if you’re a Bryson fan, everything seems off. Not only are the stars too old, but it’s hard to buy Redford as anything other than absolutely at home in the woods. Partly because of his outdoors-y life, perhaps, partly because of movies like “Jeremiah Johnson.”
Further, the set-up is all wrong. Redford’s Bryson is overly- obsessed with the end of things — medications, ailments, funerals. At the same time, he just looks too, well, Redford-ish, i.e., sun-dried and blow-dried, but basically in amazing shape. No wonder his chipper wife (Emma Thompson) thinks he should snap out of it.
Instead, he decides to take a hike. A very long hike from Georgia to Maine. He wants to walk the Appalachian Trail, all 2,118 miles of it. Five months and five million steps, with perils that range from bear attacks to ritual murders to infected rat saliva.
And never mind that out of some 2000 hikers who set out each year, only 10 per cent make it. Bryson wants “a chance to grab some fresh air while there’s still some left.”
Still, he’s so not reckless that he’s going to go it alone. After everyone he knows turns him down, the overweight, red-faced Katz turns up, titanium knee and all. But as John Wayne might say, he’s got true grit. When Bryson reminds him that most people quit after a week, Katz growls, “We’re not most people.”
And they’re not. They’re movie stars. But they’re also fine actors and, even better, fine company.
The going is not always easy. The requisite bears show up, almost on cue. So does an annoying hiker (an impressively hilarious Kristen Schaal) whose non-stop prattle is harder to take than rain, mud and snow put together.
More embarrassing, everyone seems to manage the trail better than they do, from baby-faced Cub Scouts to a pair of buff and — just to rub it in — exceedingly polite and thoughtful millenials.
Bryson and Katz’s forays off-trail are less interesting (with one exception; see below). But the intermittent returns to a world of Wal-Mart’s and Wendy’s give us a renewed appreciation for he beauty and solitude of the wilderness. The Great Smokies are beyond stunning – a breathtaking expanse of mountain greenery.
One problem: the movie is not in touch with its feminine side. Thompson is a good 20 years younger than Redford. And there’s an ugly little bit of manly jesting in which our hikers agree that if a woman is ugly, she’d better be funny, and if she isn’t funny, she’d better have money.
That said, it’s possible the immediate divine intervention that follows is intentional. No sooner have they said this than they take a tumble that leaves them caught between, well, not a rock and a hard place, but a sheer drop and the edge of a cliff.
As most of us know, Redford’s been here before — over 40 years ago in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Back then, his partner-in-crime (literally) was Paul Newman.
And apparently, “A Walk in the Woods” was originally intended to co-star Newman and Redford. So that remains a what-if that goes on the shelf with all the other fascinating what-ifs of movie lore.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Nolte makes a fine foil for Redford. He gets most of the funny bits and he does them beautifully. At the same time, he manages to look properly concerned when his co-star drops nuggets of environmental wisdom (Actually, we should all be properly concerned).
Meanwhile, Redford remains a straight man straight out of the counterculture that made him a star. He is still — justifiably? — vain about his sun-kissed good looks.
But Redford has good bones — and I don’t just mean cheekbones. He’s always cared about who he plays as much as who he is. It’s a star’s vanity, true, but it’s not misplaced either. Take a look at his body of work, right up through the phenomenal (and terribly under-appreciated) “All Is Lost.” Nicholson has pretty much called it quits. So has Warren Beatty. Redford hasn’t.
“A Walk in the Woods” isn’t a spectacular film. It’s just a good, simple, solid one. Pleasurable in the most unassuming way.
And about those off-trail episodes I mentioned?
At one point, Redford and Nolte end up at the Colonnade. Yes, the one, the only Colonnade on Cheshire Bridge. When I saw the movie, a veritable purr of happy recognition rippled though the audience. Best of all — Redford was sitting at my favorite table, the middle one, in the bar, next to the window.