Nick Nolte's bear-like performance carries 'Woods'

Appalachian Trail-set buddy comedy otherwise wanders aimlessly

Tuesday September 1, 2015 04:00 am EDT

Watching Nick Nolte growl and lumber his way through A Walk in the Woods, it seems an eternity ago that People magazine named him "The Sexiest Man Alive." In fact, it was 1992, when Nolte was in his early '50s, reflecting a pervasive double standard for age and attractiveness between male and female celebrities. Even though he's in his mid-70s now, it's still a bit of a shock to see his shambling presence with white beard and ruddy face. Time — and Hollywood living — really caught up with him.

I dwell on his appearance because, in A Walk in the Woods, Nolte leans into his public image as kind of a wreck. He plays an aging no-account from Iowa with a booze problem and a mistreated physique, who seems hilariously unqualified to hike the nearly 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Nolte isn't just funny, he's rather captivating in A Walk in the Woods, a bucket list buddy film that otherwise wanders off aimlessly.

The adaptation of Bill Bryson's nonfiction account of the same name tampers with the chronology to cast Robert Redford as the author. Bryson was in his late 40s when he published A Walk in the Woods in 1998, while Redford, in his late 70s, plays the writer as a grandfather around retirement age. A renowned travel writer and humorist who's visited most of the corners of the world, Bryson feels restless and eager for adventure after attending a friend's funeral. His New Hampshire home happens to be near an Appalachian Trail approach, and he gets the idea to hike the whole thing.

Bryson's concerned English wife (Emma Thompson) finds it to be a crackpot notion and insists he travel with someone. Bryson's old buddy Stephen Katz (Nolte) gets word of the trip and asks if he can come along. Bryson assumes the worst when a wheezing Katz arrives, alluding to bad knees and a tendency to have seizures.

When the mismatched friends set off on the months-long excursion, they're practically inching uphill, kids rushing pass them. As the miles gradually pass, they face inclement weather, wild animals, alarming mishaps — and flirtatious ladies during stopovers in small towns. The film finds a little comedic support from Nick Offerman as a guru-like REI employee and Kristen Schaal as an uninvited hiking companion (her singing Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" at all hours is a highlight).

A Walk in the Woods was filmed in Georgia and features both hiking landmarks and the likes of the Colonnade restaurant. Unfortunately the cinematography is overlit like a Steve Martin family comedy. So spectacular vistas seldom have the richness of color one would hope from a film set in one of the country's greatest mountain ranges.

There's a similar blandness to Redford's performance. It's nice to see the screen icon in a comedy, playing a socially awkward guy, but the film's conception of Bryson is rather fuzzy. In the book, he crafts some scathingly hilarious lines: when snowed in at a remote bunkhouse, he remarks of his bedding, "If the mattress stains were anything to go by, a previous user had not so much suffered from incontinence as rejoiced in it." If Redford's Bryson has that kind of acerbic wit, he never shows it. Nor does the film bring out the idea of two senior citizens raging against the dying of the light.

Instead, Redford plays straight man to Nolte, which definitely brings out the movie's big gun. Calling Nolte's voice rheumy is an understatement. At one point, when the two trudge through a snowstorm, he lets out a howl like the Abominable Snowman. When Katz settles onto a real bed after weeks on the trail, his joy is practically orgasmic. Nevertheless, the actor seems strong and forceful enough that the comedy at Katz's expense doesn't feel cruel. Even when he talks about his substance abuse problems, Nolte makes the shift into seriousness work. If A Walk in the Woods finds humor in Nolte's physical state, the actor seems definitely in on the joke. (2 out of 5 stars)

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