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film review

Robert Redford, left, as Bill Bryson and Nick Nolte as Stephen Katz along the Appalachian Trail in the film, "A Walk in the Woods."Frank Masi, SMPSP/The Associated Press

Oh, to cast a movie about your own life. A Walk in the Woods is based on travel writer Bill Bryson's humorous memoir about undertaking a too-ambitious hike of the Appalachian Trail. Bryson – who, with his spectacles and reddish-grey beard, looks like Richard Dreyfus or Martin Mull – is here played by the eternally handsome Robert Redford. This would be roughly equivalent to casting Channing Tatum in a movie about my life, instead of the unholy hybrid of Danny Huston and Shrek more suited to the part. Call it creative licence as a flattering extreme makeover.

A Walk in the Woods runs amok with such artistic liberties, albeit in some passably fascinating ways. When the book was published in 1998, Bryson was 47. And even then, A Walk in the Woods was about the physical and emotional strain of being too old and unfit for a 3,500-kilometre hike stretching from Georgia to Maine. Redford, meanwhile, is nearly 80, and plays the role as a stubborn granddad with something to prove, not least of all to himself. He is, as people often reminded, way too old for the journey. It creates an odd dissonance between the character and the scenario, which almost elevates the films to a level of high fantasy.

The nature of this fantasy is boringly feel-good and aspirational. A Walk in the Woods feels like a self-help movie by proxy. Watching it, we're supposed be inspired by the pluck and resolve of Redford's Bryson, while awed by the rapturous Appalachian scenery.

We're supposed to be similarly touched by the dogged nature of his travelling companion, estranged friend Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte). Nolte's Katz wears a life of righteous boozing and skirt-chasing like the pilled flannel shirts stuck to his swollen chest; a man of earthy realness and bearish resolve. (It helps that the 74-year-old Nolte, whose face is as flushed pink as the meat of a dried watermelon and who talks like Darth Vader swallowing his tongue, looks like he may actually croak at any moment.)

Like Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild, another biographical hiking adventure, A Walk in the Woods plays like existential introspection on a closed track. In one scene, Bryson scrambles down a highway overpass and wades through a bog of muck in order to find a shortcut to a K-Mart. The lesson is obvious: life has become too delimited by the roads, highways and overpasses that mark our passage through it, and we must sometimes venture headlong down the "road less travelled" that has so long preoccupied the American imagination.