“Wild” is one of those risky projects wherein the story zeroes in on one character, and if that person is not very interesting or sympathetic, the entire film can fall flat. This movie comes very close to taking that spill.
Fortunately, “Wild” is propped up by the presence of Reese Witherspoon in the lead role, giving a performance that has earned a Golden Globe nomination and should be a contender for an Academy Award nod also.
Witherspoon has had her detractors over the years — in 2012 she received the EDA Special Mention Award from the Alliance of Women Journalists for Actress Most in Need of a New Agent for her role in “This Means War” — but one cannot deny that, in whatever role she takes on, she is watchable.
She is on the screen for almost all of the movie’s 115 minutes of running time, mostly in scenes where she is trudging along, reeling from the burden of an overloaded backpack. She is grimy and sweaty and out of breath. And those are her better moments. Otherwise, while taking a break from her hiking quest, she is building the character of her role as Cheryl Strayed. That’s where the real strain is because Cheryl Strayed as presented here just is not that interesting.
“Wild” is based on the autobiographical book by Strayed, a Minnesota woman who went on a 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Coast trail as a means of self-discovery following the death of her mother and subsequent fall into a life of drugs and sex.
Those of us who have had hiking experience can relate to the discomfort Cheryl endured during her months-long trek — the sore muscles, the bruises from the constant thumping of the pack against your back, the blisters and toenail damage.
The rest of the movie simply does not do enough to lift Strayed’s bland character. Her failed marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski) is barely fleshed out. Too bad because despite all their problems the two people have managed to remain friends. Gaby Hoffman is underused as Cheryl’s loyal friend Aimee — viewers get little insight into that friendship.
On the plus side, Laura Dern delivers an under-appreciated performance — no nominations yet — as Cheryl’s mother Bobbi. This woman’s life certainly would serve the basis for a more emotionally wrenching movie. Married to an abusive, alcoholic man, Bobbi makes do with what she has. The best scenes in “Wild” feature Dern and Witherspoon. The highlight is a flashback scene in their home when Cheryl incredulously asks Bobbi how she can cultivate a positive attitude given the troublesome life of which she has been dealt. Bobbi replies she has no regrets — the bad marriage did produce two children she adores — and that she is not going to allow all the mishaps to define her life.
Bobbi exudes an optimism despite the financial difficulties, the domestic upheaval and even the health setbacks.
Cheryl responds to the loss of her mother in the most disrespectful way — indulging in drugs and cheating on her husband — until she sees a book in a local store about the Pacific Coast trail. Thus she decides to embark in this long hike as a way to get back in track.
There are some humorous moments as Cheryl, an inexperienced hiker, stumbles along, especially burdened by a backpack stuffed with a lot of junk she does not need. Also, Cheryl does mutter a few witty, sometimes macabre observations. There is even a funny encounter with a reporter for a magazine that focuses on hobos.
Along the way, Cheryl meets other fellow hikers, and there is some tension given the possibility these people might harm her. But the film does capture the camaraderie of dedicated hikers. Especially standing out are Kevin Rankin as Greg, Cathryn de Prume as Stacey and Cliff DeYoung as Ed, the latter a grizzled veteran of the outdoors who helps Cheryl discard much of the items she thought she needed to haul in her backpack.
The script was written by Nick Hornby, himself the author of “Fever Pitch” and “About A Boy.” Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) directed “Wild” and put together a visual treat, thanks to the natural beauty of the west coast wilderness. But the character of Cheryl Strayed, even in the end, does not stand out. She is on the receiving end of wisdom and generosity throughout her journey, but she shares no insight, no advice to others who have endured similar difficulties. All the gifts she received are never reciprocated.