In the wake of “Wild,” in which Reese Witherspoon’s version of Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and reckoned with her demons, we now have “Mild,” better known as “A Walk in the Woods.”
It stars Robert Redford and Nick Nolte as travel writer Bill Bryson and his buddy, fictionalized by Bryson as “Stephen Katz,” having a go at the Appalachian Trail for a little light banter and a casual insight or two regarding life’s highways.
The project grew out of Bryson’s 1998 book. Early on Redford hoped to convince Paul Newman to co-star, as a sort of ambling swan song for Butch and Sundance. That didn’t work out, but Nolte’s sweaty, grunting, growling depiction of a veteran libertine, lawbreaker and substance abuser is the best thing in a pretty routine picture.
It has been directed with a surfeit of jumpy, fractured reaction shots by Ken Kwapis, and the technique does little for either the comic or dramatic rhythms.
Leaving his wife and his cushy semi-retired New Hampshire life behind for a planned five months and 2,118 miles of hiking, Bryson brings his old Iowa pal along for company. Katz, on the run from the law, is not in shape. He is a blowhard and an easily winded windbag, whereas Bryson — according to Redford — is a stoic, charismatic chick magnet.
The stripped-down script focuses on a few key encounters. Kristen Schaal chatters away as a judge-y fellow hiker they meet and then ditch; Mary Steenburgen offers up sexually meaningful glances as a motel and restaurant manager, Nick Offerman pops in as the REI employee who sells Bryson his stuff.
It’s not a difficult picture to watch. All you want from “A Walk in the Woods,” honestly, is a chance to enjoy a couple of veteran actors. But the book’s comic tone hasn’t found a comfortable equivalent for the screen. In Redford’s hands Bryson comes off as pretty judge-y himself, too cool for the room (or the trail), mocking his friend’s choice of lovers or else keeping his thoughts and feelings to himself.
With his own hunky leading-man days in the rearview mirror, Nolte has turned into a highly entertaining presence in grizzled character actor mode.
Redford, by contrast, will likely never shake the matinee idol aura, though he came close in the recent and worthwhile “All is Lost.”
We’re in very different territory here, closer to “Grumpy Old Men” than “The Old Man and the Sea.” On its own terms, the movie still should’ve been a little more, a little truer in the central push/pull relationship — something.
But Nolte, 74 and so croaky he can be hard to understand, is now more convincing as a grizzly bear than a camper. This, thankfully, is not a movie where the actors are weighing down their backpacks for the sake of realism.
The germ for the trip begins when Bryson returns to his New Hampshire home after a humbling book tour where he’s met with questions of retirement — likely the same kind Redford has become accustom to fielding but happily (for our sake) ignoring. Authors, Bryson responds, don’t retire. They either drink themselves away or blow their brains out.
But Bryson is instead drawn by a mysterious longing to hike the Appalachian Trail. His concerned wife insists he find a companion. When everyone he can think of turns him down, Katz, with whom Bryson had lost touch, calls him up to say he’s game.
After the two set out in Georgia, their adventures unfold in episodic encounters and pratfalls.
Along the way, they meet Kristen Schaal, an attractive innkeeper (Mary Steenburgen) and, inevitably, a bear.
But whereas “Wild” sought redemption across the country on the Pacific Crest Trail, profundity isn’t the pursuit of Bryson, Katz and “A Walk in the Woods.” Director Ken Kwapis (“Big Miracle”), working from the script by Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman, steers it on well-trod but pleasant buddy-comedy paths that offers few surprises other than the undiminished appeal of its ambling stars.