This story of one woman’s journey – a 1000 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail – is unfortunately marred by unconvincing dialogue, inconsistent pacing, and an actress not quite up to the task. Reese Witherspoon’s best actress Oscar came after her portrayal of June Carter Cash, a performance that took advantage of her quick wit, common sense instincts, and sunny disposition. She was also able to sing, no mean feat. As the distraught daughter of a mother who died young (Laura Dern), Witherspoon cannot sing her way to our hearts, and de-glamorization and nudity do not sell the fact that she is supposed to have lapsed into a downward spiral of promiscuity and heroin addiction after Dern’s death. There is still too much of Ellle Woods and Tracy Flick in Reese Witherspoon. She doesn’t even curse authentically, much less play a waitress who has sex with two customers in the alley behind her restaurant just because it feels good. The role required an actress with more gut and greater reserves. Meg Ryan, another plucky can-do lead, tried to toughen up later in her career in In the Cut with similar results.
Even with another actress, this film still has real problems. Everyone becomes depressed upon the death of a loved one, but there is no basis to suggest why Witherspoon’s character became so self-destructive. Rather than elicit our sympathy, Witherspoon at times threatens to evoke our scorn. Her choices are presented to us in flashback, in the bedrooms of strange men, with her long suffering friend, in the heroin dens of Minneapolis, or in conversations with her mother, scenes that are supposed to give us insight into how she ended up here. They don’t. Rather, they are too disjointed to tell us much of anything, and we are left wondering “how the hell did she end up there?”
Finally, the film is too new-agey and pat for its own good. Witherspoon reminisces along the trail while inscribing the words of poets at its various check-in stations. She is followed by a mystical fox. She meets people who say wildly unrealistic things (her discussion with a little boy in particular) that are supposed to reflect her singularity and the momentous nature of her trek (she is even dubbed queen of the trail by other hikers). She finishes and tells us in an ego-centrism that lacks any self awareness that it all worked out in the end. Heck, she informs us in voiceover – she even has two lovely kids.
To the good, it is beautifully shot and the beginning of the film, when Witherspoon is starting on the trail wholly unprepared and over-fortified, had promise. I thought she might even get an appendage stuck in between some rocks.