★ ★ ★
Naturalist John Muir once said that sometimes a man just feels a primordial urge to “throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence.” Those words are quoted by author Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) early on in this delightful film adaptation of Bryson’s 1998 best-seller A Walk in the Woods, and it’s as good a reason as any for him to attempt the daunting challenge of hiking the 2100-plus-mile Appalachian Trail; there’s also the fact that he just attended a friend’s funeral and is beginning to feel the weight of his own mortality. His sensible English wife (a splendid Emma Thompson) tries to talk her headstrong hubby out of the trip (bears, bugs, reptiles, and deranged killers are some of her primary concerns), but to no avail. However, she insists that he not undergo this months-long venture alone. Enter Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), a disheveled lump of a man prone to stumbling into things, and who gets winded just doing ordinary walking. Together, this odd couple travel from Bryson’s home in New Hampshire to Georgia, where the trail begins, and embark on a journey filled with laughter, gentle life lessons, and unexpected predicaments that forever bond the two long-lost friends.
Redford, who displayed a charming dry wit in his breakout role as the Sundance Kid back in 1969, brings his comedic talents to the forefront here. Although the one-time matinee idol is now 79, he still retains a boyish sense of mischief and a contagious spirit of adventure. And he’s a perfect straight man for Nolte, who all but steals the movie as the grizzled Katz, a sloppy but thoughtful ne’er-do-well with such a gravelly voice you’d swear he eats rocks for breakfast. It’s the kind of character Nolte specializes in, but he’s rarely been this touching or funny. Ironically, Redford (who has been trying to get this film made for the past decade, and is one of the producers) originally wanted Paul Newman to play Katz, as the pair had been looking for a third movie to do together since 1973’s The Sting. Sadly, Newman’s declining health prevented him from tackling the role, and when he passed away in 2008, Redford temporarily shelved the project. But when he cast Nolte in 2012’s The Company You Keep, Redford realized that the actor was born to play Katz and the film returned to life.
However, at this point both actors are now in their seventies, and it’s possible that fans of Bryson’s book might object to the fact that Redford and Nolte are more than 30 years older than the real Bryson and Katz were when they hiked the trail. Their pairing inevitably gives the movie a grumpy-old-men feel, which isn’t found in the source material. But thanks to Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman’s witty, insightful script, the age difference actually works to the story’s advantage, as it allows the two veteran thespians to ruminate on living life to the fullest while there is still time to enjoy it.
A Walk in the Woods isn’t a transformative hiking adventure like Wild, the Reese Witherspoon starrer that netted the actress an Oscar nomination earlier this year. It’s strictly a buddy comedy that plays out in pleasing, episodic fashion and is populated with great pop-up performances, including Kristen Schaal as an annoying hiker, Nick Offerman as a sporting-goods salesman, and Mary Steenburgen as a flirtatious innkeeper. But Redford and Nolte are the main attractions — and you couldn’t ask for better traveling companions.