In a just universe, where the good are rewarded and bad chastised, nobody but Nick Nolte should have walked away from this film with legacy intact. The worst offender? Robert Redford, a supposed beacon to young filmmaking talent via his Sundance Institute. How a discerning man could let this beloved book get such mediocre treatment is shameful. And it’s not like he didn’t have time: Redford sat on this project for a decade, weathering the disappointment that Paul Newman could not (or would not) costar. Why this hackneyed film when so many young moviemakers live waiting for Redford to call?
Most of the film rings false. Transposed from its 1990s setting (it’s based on real events), the screenwriters introduce us to a world with laptops but no cell phones — we’re in the past and the present simultaneously, watching travel writer Bill Bryson attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail with his out-of-shape, recovering-alcoholic friend Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte). In order to accommodate the aging Redford, writers Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman decided to make this an aging-boomer bromance. (Bryson was 40-ish when he took the real walk). But the writers’ real mistake was excising Bryson’s punchy humor and turning the film into a sitcom starring goofy walk-ons: a self-obsessed woman, two bears, and a horny large woman. Whenever anything starts to look like genuine conflict, the hikers attain some lofty peak and look down on woody nature. It’s easy cinematic epiphany time. The writers turned touching humor into snack cheese.
Maybe it’s not a great book. Bill McKibben’s The Age of Missing Information is a better-written American nature manifesto from the same era. Yet Bryson’s book touched nerves, and Redford ought to have honored it. Instead, only Nolte seems authentic, wheezing like a truly suffering man who expects natural salvation despite large self-doubts. Some of his humility might have helped Redford traverse this muddied dreck.