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Movie review: It’s nature vs. Nolte in ‘A Walk in the Woods’

Robert Redford, left, stars as Bill Bryson and Nick Nolte as Stephen Katz in “A Walk in the Woods,” a film about two men attempting to travel the Appalachian Trail. The film was adapted from Bryson’s travelogue.
Robert Redford, left, stars as Bill Bryson and Nick Nolte as Stephen Katz in “A Walk in the Woods,” a film about two men attempting to travel the Appalachian Trail. The film was adapted from Bryson’s travelogue. Broad Green Pictures

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 persuade 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 (“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”), and the technique does little for either the comic or dramatic rhythms. Leaving his wife (Emma Thompson, barely on screen for 10 minutes) 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 the 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. (The most affecting shot in the film is Nolte quietly regarding a gnarled old oak tree along the trail.) 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.

A WALK IN THE WOODS

2.5 stars out of five

Cast: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Kristen Schaal, Nick Offerman, Emma Thompson.

Director: Ken Kwapis.

Running time: 1:44.

Rated: R, for language and some sexual references.

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