Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Walk in the Woods

Alternate Title:  The Carolina Death March

One sentence synopsis:     Bill Bryson and an old friend of his from long-past adventures decide to hike the entire Appalachian Trail.

Things Havoc liked:  Though my compulsive need to warn you all about bad films may seem like it would leave me with no time at all to spare, I do manage to get in a bit of reading here and there, and one of my favorite authors is travel and science writer Bill Bryson, author of all sorts of books from A Short History of Nearly Everything to Mother Tongue to a series of travelogues throughout Australia, Britain, Europe, and America. Bryson's writing style is a distinctive, newspaper-column sort of thing, not precisely the type of writing I would normally expect to see converted into a movie, but here we sit, and I wanted to see if Bryson's caricatures and sense of humor would carry through intact to a movie that included, among other luminaries, Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. With the September Slump upon is, the yearly pause before the storm that is Oscar Season, it seemed a reasonable thing to go and see. How bad could it really be?

Things Havoc disliked:  *Sigh*

Robert Redford sucks. I've always believed that Robert Redford sucks. He sucked when he was younger, he sucked when he was middle-aged, and he sucks as an old man, all for the exact same reasons. The man does not know how to act. Any glance at any film of his, from Jeremiah Johnson and Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, to Out of Africa or The Sting (where he inexplicably won an Oscar nod), to more recent fare such as The Last Castle or The Horse Whisperer, Robert Redford has persisted in acting like nothing but a "charming," smarmy, useless, depth-free non-actor who thinks that a winning smile can somehow cover for all faults. Yes, he occasionally manages to elevate his game to merely "acceptable", such as in Spy Game, or last year's Winter Soldier. Woop-de-freaking-do. Most of the time he puts out crap like this, standing about in the middle of a movie set like he has only the vaguest notion of what's going on around him, reciting his dialogue as though it's being fed to him via an earpiece, delivering "jokes" (I cannot put enough quotation marks around that word) with the flattest, most timing-free delivery imaginable. Playing Bill Bryson himself, he fails to get across even the reasons why he has decided to undertake a 2,000+ mile hike through the forest, muttering incoherently about unrelated inanities in the hopes that someone, the director or editor or some extra, will rush in to save him from the need to convey emotions to the audience. He shares no chemistry with any other actor, not with his "best friend", Nick Nolte (who at least salvages some dignity by actually acting), not with his "wife" Emma Thompson (totally wasted in a role that could have been played by an extra), not with his son or his son's friends (one of whom is played by Nick Offermann, for no reason I could determine), not with the other people on the trail, not with Back To The Future III's Mary Steenburgen (whose presence here cannot be explained by the wisest of men), not with anybody. He looks like someone's confused great-uncle, the one you don't really know but know you're supposed to be polite to, awkwardly reciting "jokes" in the style of Rainier Wolfcastle, ones that he plainly doesn't understand, be they the simplest of sarcastic remarks. His hair looks like someone shaved a Golden Retriever to make a wig. He is useless.

But then this entire movie is useless, really, and the fault for that goes beyond Redford and to the director of this unfunny, leaden weight of a movie, Ken Kwapis, who had his debut in 1985 making the pristine Sesame Street movie Follow That Bird, and has been paying for it ever since with crap like Dunston Checks in, The Beautician and the Beast, and He's Just Not That Into You. Perhaps his true calling is children's films, I don't know, but were it not for obligatory F-bombs to remind us that we're all supposed to be adults here, I would have pegged the target age of this movie as being roughly 5. The jokes mostly consist of someone making a comment ("We must have covered a long distance!" "I hope it doesn't rain!") followed immediately by the most obvious "ironic" result one would instantly imagine (They encounter a map showing that they have not covered a long distance, It begins to rain, etc...). Several times, the characters even look at the camera following the "joke", as though expecting a sitcom sound effect (Wah, wah, waaaaaahh...) to play. Repeat this about a hundred and thirty times throughout the film, and you have the entire thing. All of the obligatory buddy-travelogue movie touchpoints, the wacky hijinx involving colorful locals, the bitter outpouring of long-repressed anger, the tearjerking reconciliation and regrets over having lost touch, all of it is entirely pro-forma, unconnected from one scene to the next, with Redford reciting his dialogue like he's reading a menu and Nolte shifting phlegm up and down his throat with every wheezing breath. Even plot points plainly established for later payoff, like the fact that Nolte's character needs to eat every hour due to some syndrome he picked up from contaminated tap water years earlier (how exactly does this man propose to hike two thousand miles again?) is brought up once for a cold, laugh-less joke, and then never again mentioned.

Final thoughts:   A Walk in the Woods is a complete waste of time, a wretched, joyless enterprise that fails to entertain or elicit any emotion whatsoever from its audience. Familiar as I am with the source material, I can see where the filmmakers tried to include touchpoints from the books, the woman our heroes encounter too annoying to believe, or Redford's solemn prognostications concerning the death of the American Chestnut tree, but none of it feels genuine, spontaneous, or even worth listening to. Nick Nolte, who is a proper actor, manages to salvage some dignity from the affair, but everyone else (particularly Thompson) is left to meander without direction, or as usual shows himself unfamiliar with the concept of direction or acting in general (Redford). Perhaps this just goes to show how good the original book actually was, as the story is essentially the same, as are many of the anecdotes, or perhaps simply it illustrates a more general division between a good storyteller and a bad one, regardless of medium.

Honestly, whatever the purposes you set it to as an example, A Walk in the Woods is simply a bad movie. And even in the September Slump, there's never an excuse for that.

Final Score:  3.5/10

Next Time:  A return to indie cinema in the person of an old acquaintance...

1 comment:

  1. Jeremiah Johnson is untouchable. Do not tread on the LIVER EATER!!!


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