Bill Bryson’s observations of landscape and people, language and history have accrued a huge readership over the years, so there was a ready-made audience in waiting for Ken Kwapis’s screen adaptation of his trek along the Appalachian Trail. Instead of it being a one-man show, Bryson (played by a creaking, wrinkly Robert Redford) is joined by Stephen (Nick Nolte), a reprobate buddy from the old days, in a pairing that is clearly intended to create a comic Felix and Oscar in flannies vibe. As a fan of the writer, I was let down by the flatness and predictably structured result. It’s the sort of movie in which, because you want to love it, you find yourself willing something profound or hilarious to happen but, good natured and honest though it is, you never quite feel satisfied by what is offered up. That is not to say that the company of Bryson and Stephen is not agreeable, or that those they meet on the way don’t lift proceedings – Mary Steenburgen as the flirtatious motel proprietress and Kristen Schaal’s annoying fellow hiker provide a couple of the more lively moments in the episodic screenplay. Nolte too, if at first hard to understand, is a welcome counter to Redford’s blandness and, so disheveled and out of shape is he that you can’t help but feel for the bloke as he stumbles through arcadia.
As a paean to the wonders of the natural world it never takes flight, with only fleeting moments of scenic awe, and there is never any real sense that the men (unlike Reese Witherspoon in Wild) have covered much ground. Bryson’s whimsical, self-deprecating humour is captured only occasionally (as when Redford is forced to trudge under a freeway to get to a K-mart), while the expected belly laughs, notably at the long-foretold encounter with the grizzly bears, fizzle rather that fire. On another level, the film succeeds as a buddy-flick, with the reaffirmation of a lasting friendship being a poignant reminder for us all of what matters most in life.