Thursday, September 3, 2015

a little movie

Some people don't like Bill Bryson's writing: they find him grumpy. As I'm grumpy myself, I don't mind, as Bryson is only grumpy when it's appropriate: he's not whiny. I also find him very funny, as well as interested in the kinds of absorbing facts I'm interested in.

None of his books is funnier or more interesting than A Walk in the Woods, even though it's about something I have no interest in doing, walking the Appalachian Trail. So I was curious enough to go on the first day of release to see the movie adaptation of it, starring Robert Redford as Bryson and Nick Nolte as his old buddy and walking companion, Stephen Katz. Originally it was going to be made over 25 years ago with Paul Newman as Katz, to reunite that classic pairing, but Newman became too ill and it was shelved.

Making it now, with Redford and Nolte both in their seventies, turns the walk into a last-ditch bucket-list "staving off mortality" trip, and the script is - I suppose sensibly - written that way, rather than the "facing midlife crisis" of the book, where Bryson and Katz were both in their forties. This gives the movie a melancholic tone. It's less of the comedic romp it could have been.

It's also toned-down by subdued performances by both Redford and Nolte, and just about everybody else. They're just there, without much vividness. Redford has no animation; he's just kind of stone-faced, and the gnarly complexion of his age doesn't help. Nolte mutters and grumbles, but very gently. Only Emma Thompson as Bryson's concerned and slightly puzzled wife really seems to believe in her character. Kristen Schaal as the obnoxious fellow-hiker Mary Ellen was a stroke of casting genius, but Schaal doesn't seem to be all that much of an actress, at least not in this movie, nor does the script give her much to do with the character.

The plot basically follows the general outline of the first part of the book, the through-hike (though interrupted in the book) from Georgia to Virginia, but it's very much a warm-hearted buddy movie, editing out both almost all the friction between Bryson and Katz, and also much of the painful rigor of the trail. In the book, the weight of the packs is so burdensome that Katz throws out his favorite foods because he can't stand lugging them any more; the movie is so soft-minded that its Katz carries along a full bottle of whiskey just to prove that he's conquered his alcoholism and doesn't need to drink it. If, as a reader of the book, you were imagining anything with the bite of Sideways, forget it.

There's a few added plot points, like a scene of the most utterly chaste flirting imaginable between Redford and Mary Steenburgen as the owner of a roadside motel (is this a demonstration that a 60-year-old woman can have a sex life, or that she can't?), and one where Bryson and Katz get trapped on a cliff ledge, basically so that they can have a little heart-to-heart about the meaning of life.

Save it for home viewing, but don't expect either a date movie or a party movie. Gorgeous scenery, though: better than the book (Bryson was too focused on slogging through to look up much). The two settings that most impressed me are the vertiginous overlook near the end (it's McAfee Knob in southwest Virginia, which Bryson actually skipped) and the enormous dam the hikers walk across, which I've not seen an identification of.

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