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Robert Redford’s back and Nick Nolte’s got him

You’ve got to love the word “inappropriate” sometimes. Its everyday use these days was a steal from psychiatry but when you see Nick Nolte in Robert Redford’s adaptation of Bill Bryson’s best-seller “A Walk in the Woods,” you’ll delight in how majestically “inappropriate” he is for the full length of the movie.

In a wildly unpressed, fully bearded state, Nolte looks even more disheveled than the former Golden Boy looked in those wild-haired mugshots when he was drunk. In truth, in some shots during “A Walk in the Woods,” Nolte looks far less put together than homeless people I’ve seen sleeping it off on the sidewalks of major cities.

When he talks in his gravelly voice, words, as always, come out sounding like bacon frying in the pan.

He is almost the only reason to see the film. Putting Nolte, at 74, in a high-minded buddy comedy with 79-year-old Redford, the most buttoned-up, goody-goody superstar we currently have, was such a brilliant idea that I’m delighted I saw the film even though I don’t think it should ever have been made in this way.

The movie is an adaptation of Bryson’s humorous 1998 best-seller about what happened when he decided to walk the full length of the Appalachian Trail with an old friend he pseudonymously calls “Steve Katz.” That’s Nolte’s role.

There is, by the way, a venerable figure in the American literary avant-garde named Katz and when you Google his photo, you see a reasonably well-groomed academic version of the shambling, super-annuated overgrown wild man Nolte plays in the movie.

Sorry, but the ages alone dictate the film was a mistake right from the get-go. Redford, at 79, has no business playing Bryson who is even now only 63.

The real Bryson – best-selling author of travel, humor and nature books – was only 45 when “A Walk in the Woods” was published. It’s where the kernel of humor explodes from in the book – advancing middle age rather than old age.

Putting guys in their late 70s on a quixotic quest to hike the full length of the Appalachian Trail is an entirely different sort of prospect – and joke from the essence of Bryson’s original.

Don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t possibly admire Redford’s persistent assumption of singular superstar priorities at his age. What he did with J.C. Chandor in their film “All is Lost” was one of the great achievements, in recent American movies. (If you missed seeing it in a theater, you missed it entirely. Seeing it on video doesn’t begin to reproduce its magnificent and harrowing effect.)

But he’s wrong for Bryson in almost every way – not least because he’s not funny, really. His sense of humor is rich as a receiver, not giver. He can say funny things in a film. But, in a crucial distinction comedians and comic actors understand, he can’t say things funny – the way, say, great comedians can, whether Buddy Hackett or Chris Rock, or great comic actors, whether Peter Falk or Jim Parsons. There is, in Redford, no discernible joy in saying something that someone else laughs at.

Considering how much of modern society is predicated on that desire, that makes him a risky actor in a comedy these days. What they should have done with a movie that, incredibly, starred Redford and Nolte as buddies, is pitch Bryson’s book over the side completely and made up something else.

Two filmmakers were once attached to this thing that could have done just that – Larry Charles of “Borat” fame and Redford’s old “Natural” friend Barry Levinson, who gave us the comic classics “Diner” and “Tin Men.” They couldn’t do that though. It’s not what Redford wanted, and Bryson is very much alive, meaning he needed to be pleased.

This is a movie Redford has wanted to make for almost 20 years – in some stories as the third and final buddy film for him and the late Paul Newman (one of the great Hollywood mythical quests of the last half century by both acting principals, not to mention numerous executives and writers and directors).

It’s enjoyable to watch. And Redford’s presence ensures the incidental presences of actresses as superb as Emma Thompson and Mary Steenburgen.

Redford gets to say all manner of eminently environmental-conscious things about the transitory and tragic beauty of nature (visually abundant in the film though never indulged as much as it might have been).

Redford, it seems to me, has always been a virtuous man. Putting him on screen in anything with Nolte at his most disheveled and overgrown is joyful to see. There were times in this movie that I marveled so much at the two of them sharing a screen that I grinned when nothing in the slightest bit interesting was happening.

But this is more than a vanity production for Redford, it’s occupational hubris – a wasted opportunity.

In October, we’ll see him play Dan Rather opposite Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes in “Truth” about CBS’ reportage of George W. Bush’s military service. That one could be immensely interesting, but there again he’ll have the difficulties of playing a living person.

Good for him anyway. American movies will always owe him for giving them the Sundance Festival.

How much better, though, this movie might have been if Nolte had been the one with the crucial industrial clout.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

A walk in the woods

2.5 stars

Starring: Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen

Director: Ken Kwapis

Running time: 104 minutes

Rating: R for language and sexual references.

The Lowdown: Redford plays Bill Bryson in an adaptation of Bryson’s humorous 1998 book about trying to walk the full length of the Appalachian trail.

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