Elderly acting duo Robert Redford and Nick Nolte team up for a lightweight comedy based on the best-selling travelogue by Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods. Now showing areawide, the film should be a godsend to activity coordinators at regional nursing homes.
Bill Bryson (Redford) is feeling restless after a few years without publishing a book. To make matters worse, his friends and neighbors are dying off. The signposts of mortality and complacency (signified, here, by grandchildren and a Volvo) have inspired America's travel laureate to do something. Why not the Appalachian Trail? It's only the 2,000-mile trek from Georgia to Maine that even young bucks in peak physical shape rarely have the stamina (and endless material resources) to complete. The headstrong Bryson commits to tackling the trail regardless, protests of his wife (Emma Thompson) be damned!
He does consent to bring a pal along — articles about bear maulings and trailside terrors, courtesy of Mrs. Bryson, have prompted that caveat — and after just about everyone in Bryson's Rolodex laughs in his face, a hometown chum named Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte) volunteers his companionship.
The film, then, follows the two older buddies as they gripe and grumble along the trail about aging and women and where their friendship went astray. They struggle with weather, lodging and supplies. But mostly, as the film suggests, they walk.
Nolte, in spite of a very silly script, commands the screen as the gruff, down-home sidekick. His voice is gnarled and wheezy, his body warped and achy, his backpack loose and freighted with symbolic bourbon. Every time he talks — "There are only two men in the world that would sleep with her," he says of a hefty local at a laundromat, "and here we are in the same damn town!" — you sort of marvel that he's standing upright. Still, after Nolte's indelible turn as the violent father in 2011's Warrior, every performance feels like an aftershock.
Likewise with Redford, after his virtuoso solo act in 2013's All is Lost. Here, he's stale and staid, charmless next to both Thompson and Nolte. He's so much the straight man that he can't even rouse himself to laugh at the travails of his ridiculous comrade. The viewing audience will probably smile, but the laughs (when and if they come) will be low-grade chucklers.
Which isn't to say that the film is wholly unenjoyable. Director Ken Kwapis (The Office finale, He's Just Not That Into You, Big Miracle) gives the Appalachian Trail itself a few moments to shine — the vistas are spectacular — and lets his white-haired leading men take the reins. It's not as funny as the book, nor anywhere near as good as last month's other film featuring two guys talking to each other (The End of the Tour), but if you're a senior citizen or a hiking enthusiast, you could do a lot worse.