Starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte & Emma Thompson
104 minutes/M – Offensive language and sexual references
Bill Bryson – yes, THAT Bill Bryson of prolific popular travel writing fame – has retired and is about to settle into all that new found freedom allows. Personal family dramas are forcing him to take stock of himself and the life that he and his wife Catherine have built over the years, forcing some long boiling frustrations to take hold. After a brief walk to clear his head, he finds himself at the foot of the Appalachian Trail – the longest, most arduous trek in the American wilderness – and resolves to take it on, much to his wife’s caution and dismay.
Despite this, she encourages him to explore the possibilities of the journey but insists that he take a companion to get him through. After calling many of his friends, who usually laugh in his face or flat out refuse to face the adventure, Bill finds just one person interested in taking the trip; Stephen Katz, a larger than life and somewhat ailing distant acquaintance who used to socialise with a mutual friend.
Despite Catherine’s fears that it will all end badly, the pair buy up some walking equipment and head to the north most point of the trail and begin their journey, each with hopes to find… something.
This adaptation has been a long gestating project for Robert Redford, who produces and plays Bill Bryson, and it really shows in his deep understanding of the real-life man, his quiet sense of thoughtful melancholy, echoing the vast appeal of the outdoors which must have had throughout his life. He breathes a degree of normalcy into the role that grounds the comedy and keeps the audience on Bryson’s side throughout.
Nick Nolte plays Stephen Katz with an over-enthusiastic sense of oafishness that is by turns endearing, annoying, playful and down-right over-the-top. His inflection of this hard living, unhealthy mound of a man is rather two-dimensional and his raspy cadence is pretty annoying at times. This should offset Redford’s sincere charm, but instead just comes across as a shambolic, over-played mess of alcoholic cliches and too much mugging for the camera.
Emma Thompson, as Catherine Bryson, plays that earnestly furrowed brow that we know her so well for, but the character provided by the script is a bookend to the adventures and is a shade shrill and cloying.
Other supporting cast aren’t given much to play with either, are quite distracting or have been edited around to tighten the film to focus on the leads. Nick Offerman makes an appearance early on as a camping store salesman, although this feels like stunt-casting for the sake of it and his heart doesn’t seem to be into it, much like the character. Kristen Schaal squeals the over-exuberance of hippie-chick tramper Mary Ellen, but it really feels like there should have been more to her character for the two older men to reflect on and interact with – as it is she’s just there to show up their years and lack of speed at covering distance. There also seems to be a good opportunity for Bryson and Katz to find younger versions of themselves in a couple of younger male hikers (Andrew Vogel and Derek Krantz), but this opportunity in the dramatic structure is also squandered.
Of course, being set in The Great Outdoors there’s lots of beautiful scenery to look at and vast shots of wilderness. And as great as the cinematography is, it’s not really given much gravitas within the story, nor much reflection for the characters. There are even some backgrounds that seem badly painted in in post-production.
At about the midway, one of the characters points out that you shouldn’t “get bogged down in the details”, so maybe I’m being a little unkind – this is an amiable, in-offensive script, with the sort of buoyancy in performances that you don’t see much in modern cinema anymore – The Odd Couple in the Appalachians, if you will – and there are plenty of reasonable laughs to be had, most of which land their target. It’s certainly something you could take an older family member – your parents or their parents – to for a none-too-taxing relatively entertaining buddy comedy.
2 And A Half Stars