It’s Sundance Film Festival Day 2 and things just got real as everyone wants to get their movies shown over the first weekend causing a huge logjam of movies where choices have to be made about what’s really important to see.
I wasn’t able to get into the early morning press screening of the thriller The Witch, so that meant I had the morning free until the first public screening of A Walk in the Woods at the MARC, which is a racket club turned into a movie theater specially for the festival.
This is a late addition to the festival and its significant mainly because it stars Sundance founder Robert Redford, who has expressed surprise that festival programmer John Cooper added it. It’s based on travel writer Bill Bryson’s book about him hiking the Appalachian Trail with his grizzled pal Steve Katz, played here by Nick Nolte.
The timing of this comedy could have been better since most people will be seeing it after Reese Witherspoon’s Wild and Trails, far superior iterations of travel porn that don’t rely as much on the appeal of nature’s gorgeous vistas and landscapes to make up for weak storytelling. While A Walk in the Woods is also based on a memoir, it’s handled more like a comedy than anything else.
Nolte offers a great counterpoint to Redford, growling and grunting and looking pretty shabby by comparison, but they’re both decent and have some nice moments even if the material feels well below both of them. Far too often it resorts to the lowest hanging fruit of humor including slapstick physical humor, but a lot of the times, it just seems like a series of bits with no cohesion tying them together. For instance, the duo have an encounter with two bears in the woods and that should bear some significance, but they scare them off and then that episode is over.
On top of everything else, it’s hard to believe that either Redford or Nolte could possibly handle some of the physical aspects of these roles, so there’s a credibility issue throughout.
Most of the supporting cast have fairly unsubstantial parts, basically just breaking up what might have been monotonous if it was just Redford and Nolte. Emma Thompson is as great as always playing as Bryson’s wife, while Nick Offerman appears for just one scene as a camping equipment salesman. Kristen Schaal appears for a little longer than that as an annoying hiker they meet on the trail and Mary Steenburgen as the proprietor of a small motel where they stay. Most likely, all of these actors agreed to do this because it would be a day’s work and it would allow them to work with Redford and Nolte, so who can blame them?
A Walk in the Woods just doesn’t work as a whole and when it comes down to it, the only one who can take the blame is director Ken Kwapis, who is responsible for some absolute schlock like License to Wed and The Beautician and the Beast.
A Walk in the Woods will probably score with mainstream movie audiences over 50, but it’s just another comedy that tries too hard for laughs and ends up with a batting average below 50%.
If there’s one thing that you can count on Sundance to be good for is that if a filmmaker has a hit out of the festival, they’re likely to be welcomed back. The rest of my first full day at Sundance was spent watching the latest movies from two such returning directors.
Director James Ponsoldt has been on quite a Sundance roll the past few years between Smashed, The Spectacular Now, and now he continues that with The End of the Tour, a documentation of the last days of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 book tour for “Infinite Jest” on which he was accompanied by Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky. Lipsky published those interviews after Wallace’s suicide death in 2008, 12 years after their encounter. Jason Segel is Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg is Lipsky in what is essentially a two-hander that follows them around as they talk about a variety of topics including how the notably reclusive Wallace has tried to acclimate to his sudden fame.
Lipsky himself had just had his first fiction novel published, so he’s mildly bemused by some of the rave reviews for Wallace’s book until he reads it himself and convinces his editor to let him interview Wallace. Lipsky travels to Indiana to meet Wallace and then trails him to his final book reading in Minneapolis. Lipsky’s interest in Wallace seems to be a combination of gushing adulation and jealousy, hanging onto every anecdote or philosophical musing from Wallace, but also dubious that he’s as authentic as he claims.
Donald Magulies’ screenplay is top-notch, but the unlikely combination of Segel and Eisenberg is what makes the film work so well. As much as it does seem like a lot of talking at first, this relationship really grows on you since the two actors are so well-matched.
Segel gives one of the most nuanced performances of his career playing Wallace, being casually down-to-earth one moment and then saying the most intelligent things the next. It’s a role that will surely get Segel some awards attention maybe because we do get to see that he has a far wider range than previously seen. Although this is mainly from Lipsky’s perspective, Eisenberg plays the slimy journalist so well, always having his hand on the tape recorder to catch Wallace’s every word, calling him out and challenging the respected author.
There’s a lightness to this relationship, but knowing Wallace’s ultimate fate (something Lipsky would not have known at the time of the interviews) brings a lot more depth to their discussions about Wallace’s mindset in the years leading up to “Infinite Jest.” The two slowly become friendly enough to get past the reporter-subject barrier until Wallace suspects Lipsky is hitting on an ex-girlfriend and his paranoia turns to outright hostility as they head back to Wallace’s home in silence.
One has to give Ponsoldt a lot of credit for turning what’s essentially two people talking for 105 minutes into such a thought-provoking experience that never feels bogged down in its dialogue, regardless of whether you’re one of Wallace’s literary admirers or not.
Unfortunately our review for Craig Zobel’s Z for Zachariah is embargoed until later this evening.