If you love the Appalachian Trail and the occasional soaring of a good piece of soundtrack in tandem with a soaring view of The Great Trail, you’ll get a lump in your throat four or five times in the new movie “A Walk in the Woods,” adapted from Bill Bryson’s book of the same name and starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.
If you have a weakness for schtick that’s nearly as broad and predictable as Maxwell Smart’s, you’ll get a half dozen good chuckles watching the stumbling, bumbling, perpetually on-the-prowl Nolte as Bryson co-hiker Stephen Katz.
If you live in Roanoke and know your local landmarks, you’ll get an extra lump, and maybe have to fight a tear when the sweeping, drone-view vista of McAfee Knob and the Catawba Valley fills the screen.
Other than that, be prepared for a TV-level kind of movie. Robert Redford carries out a few facial twitches and bits, and delivers his lines—set-ups for Nolte as well as his own comic jabs—in a gentle and professional manner. And the supporting players, including Mary Steenburgen as a hotel keeper and Emma Thompson as Bryson’s wife, do exactly the same. The standout is Susan McPhail in another bit of schtick with Nolte which begins with her asking him to remove her panties . . . stuck in a laundromat washer of course, and leading to Mssrs Redford and Nolte chucking their packs and then themselves out the back windows of motel rooms.
Fidelity to the book comes and goes. Many of the best lines between Bryson and Katz remain, and we do get, now and again, pieces of Bryson's wonder-at-nature that give the book much of its heft. The fact that Bryson and Katz were both 44 at the time of their hike, and Redford and Nolte are a combined 150-plus does not particularly detract, though we do have to invoke doses of willing suspension of disbelief now and again as related to age.
AT aficionados will have plenty to quibble about if they’re so inclined. The hikers, beginning at Springer Mountain in Georgia and hiking north, see the Shenandoah National Park sign before they see McAfee. Hiking poles, tucked tidily into each man’s pack at the onset, remain there throughout, even as they envy the nimbleness of younger hikers crossing a stream with the aid of their sticks—before the older guys inevitably tumble into it.
It can make your heart swell to see something you feel a part of spread out up there all big and green and proud on a movie screen. And that is part of the curse/blessing of this little movie: The number of hikers attempting a thru-hike (Bryson and Katz covered just 870 of the 2,200-plus miles), is guaranteed to swell far more than it did after the release of the book in 1998, overtaxing places like Springer Mountain and our McAfee Knob. It is perhaps one of the best parts of the movie that Broad Green Pictures has pledged to help the Appalachian Trail Conservancy deal with that coming onslaught.
The movie is blessed with two stars, which is about the rating it earns as well.