Sundance 2015: Taking 'A Walk in the Woods' is Exhausting & Wasteful
by Ethan Anderton
January 24, 2015
When Robert Redford, the founder of the Sundance Film Festival, has a film playing here in Park City, you hope for the best. It wasn't Redford's idea to premiere A Walk in the Woods at Sundance, but instead that decision came from John Cooper, director of programming. Perhaps it would have been better to let the film lie, because it does not belong here in the mountains as part of the most prestigious independent film festival in the United States. A Walk in the Woods is a massive disappointment across the board with mediocre performances, poor production quality, and a story that meanders more than the characters.
A Walk in the Woods adapts Bill Bryson's memoir of the same name, following Redford as the aging travel writer who decides to set out to hike the 2,100-mile-long Appalachian Trail, despite the objection of his wife, played by Emma Thompson, who is about the only one who actually seemed willing to show up to do her job the right way. But of course, Bryson persists, but he won't be alone because after everyone he calls turns him down, a grizzled old friend (Nick Nolte), who didn't really get along with Bryson in their younger years, invites himself along on the trip.
The pairing of veteran actors like Nolte and Redford should have made for an entertaining on-screen duo, but neither of them seem fully invested in the half-baked script from Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman. The acting duo has chemistry, but Redford isn't anywhere near as dedicated to his character as Nolte. Sometimes Redford feels like he just read the script for the first time that day. And while Nolte certainly works well as his rough around the edges friend, even his shtick gets old after awhile. Plus, their backstory never feels fully developed or genuine.
The script is one of the two biggest problems with this film. There isn't so much of a story as just a series of scenes that happen to have the same two characters in them throughout. Nothing that happens on screen really seems to have any powerful or profound impact on our characters. Even detours involving a know-it-all hiker (Kristen Schaal) or an alluring motel owner (Mary Steenburgen) promise something more, but fizzle out without making any real difference. And any of the tender moments meant to make you feel for Nolte and Redford fall flat, because they're not earned due to the absolute mess of sub-par comedy surrounding them.
The other major issue is the stunningly bad production quality. A Walk in the Woods has some of the worst green screen shots I've ever seen in a film. And we're talking simple green screen shots of two people walking, not anything visual effects heavy. On a related note, the pivotal final scene where our characters are meant to really bond is overshadowed by a noticeably fake set, complete with an awful backdrop that takes you right out of what should be the beauty of nature.
Speaking of nature, for a film that is meant to focus on a life-changing hike on the Appalachian Trail, there's an inexplicable lack of glamor shots featuring our characters out in the wilderness. There's one that actually stands out and impresses, but otherwise, some fantastic, majestic aerial shots of Redford and Nolte (or at least their stand-ins) in the woods were relegated to the end credits rather than being in the film itself. It's a mystifying decision that just doesn't make any sense whatsoever.
A Walk in the Woods is nothing but a comedy that lacks direction, both in the story arc of our characters, and also in any talent behind the camera. Perhaps I was expecting too much from Ken Kwapis, the director of Big Miracle, He's Just Not That Into You and License to Wed, but when you have actors like Redford and Nolte on board, both who work sparingly in front of the camera nowadays, in a film at Sundance, there should be something higher in quality. I would say that your grandparents will love this movie, but I feel like that would be insulting to the elderly. Somewhere in another timeline there's a good version of this movie Redford made with Paul Newman. But sadly, this version is what we got.