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Sundance Review: "A Walk in the Woods"

Robert Redford's adaptation of Bill Bryson's popular 1998 memoir A Walk In the Woods is an unremarkable journey with a short sprinkling of low-key chuckles and a heaving dose of schmaltzy sentiment. As Redford's travel companion, co-star Nick Nolte manages to give this low-percolating buddy comedy/road-movie-on-foot at least some minor footing, but its not enough to balance the overwrought equilibrium. Mining the material for all its geriatric sitcom worth, director Ken Kwapis' internal clock ticks with the fervor of a retiree, as he fails to charge the material with any sense of driving momentum. As much as Nolte's character drags his feet, it's Kwapis who lags most. For a film all about the journey forward, that presents a major problem.

There curtain opens on Bill Bryson (Redford) plopped in an interview chair and grilled by a Boston newscaster. Between high-browed snaps at travel journalism, this liberal-shmearing mockery of a media man criticizes Bryson for writing solely about experiences abroad. He questions, "Why have you never written about America?" Something twinkles in Bryson as a hit from this overcharged snark battleship appears to sink something within him. Seeing Redford seemed only half-full to begin with, his deflation fails to strike a nerve.

We're lead to believe that that exchange - in addition to the death of a distant friend - inspires Bryson to reach outside the box and spring for that one final adventure. Now well over the hill, his spirit journey down the Appalachian is not one his wife (Emma Thompson) is willing to broad. Not unless Bill has a buddy in tow.

After a series of cold-called rejections, Bryson finds himself on the phone with a washed-up alcoholic friend of yore, Stephen Katz (Nolte), who he'd not seen since a calamitous Euro-trip some 40 years back. Desperate for company, he succumbs to this only option and sets out to take on the 2,179 mile trek with this "friend" of unenviable gait. Their journey brings them to head with annoying companions, bears and vengeful boyfriends but never fails to feel like more than a montage of mildly assuming moments.

Nolte's gruff grumbles provide a sense of abject naturalism - an old half-bitter man quietly raging, forsaking himself of bad life choices - that is oddly lacking in this flick that's surrounded by nature. He's the only one on the border of bearing his soul as Redford seems to more or less ice-skate his way through his depiction of an aging, intellectual playboy. An uncomfortable amount of blame ought be laid at screenwriter Michael Arndt's (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine) feet as the script is flatter than the Georgia section of the trail. It doesn't help when Kwapis can't discern when to start and stop the camera. Or where to point it.

There's a nice moment in A Walk in the Woods where a star-gazing Katz waxes on existence, speculating about just how many millions of stars they can see out here in the great nothing. Bryson matter-of-factly corrects him: only five thousand are visible to the naked eye. Katz shakes it off, "I'm a big picture kind of guy." If only Kwapis could have learned this same lesson.

Unabashedly sentimental and overtly geared towards the elderly folks in the audience, the overly tender Kwapis filters his comic sensibility through an aggressively broad strainer. The outcome is the equivalent of cinematic baby food: mushy, flavorless and far too safe.


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