This is only the fourth woman-on-a-journey movie we've seen in the past year, and only the third that involved actual walking, but this is the first one to feature naked Reese Witherspoon. The other three were On My Way with Catherine Deneuve (she drove), Redwood Highway with Shirley Knight, and Tracks with Mia Wasikowska. It's the last that has the most in common with Wild, and not just because Mia also got naked.
In Tracks—based on a true story, like Wild—a woman walks across the desert because she's troubled, to some degree or another. Tracks is interesting despite not going into the details much. Wild is the opposite: The whole thing is a search for "why"s.
Why does she have to do this? Why did she do all those drugs and have all that anonymous sex? Why is Reese Witherspoon still playing teens and 20-somethings?
The Boy, who wouldn't know Ms. Witherspoon from any other big turn-of-the-century actress (having only seen her in Mud) leaned in at one point to say "She's, like, in her thirties or something, right?" during one of the scenes where she was playing a college student. (I think she's gotten better looking with age, but she doesn't look young.)
It's important because the age at which one has this sort of life crisis pretty dramatically impacts how we feel about the character. The movie's flashbacks are kind of confusing because they're not in order and they completely omit certain things, like Cheryl's marriage, except in terms of the wreckage she's made of it.
But the other thing the Boy whispered to me, early on, was something like "I'm not hating my life choices," which is fairly high praise given that this is the sort of movie that could be awful. In fact from the trailers, it could hardly not be awful, since they cast it as sort of an Eat, Pray, Love thing where an awful woman finds excuses for being awful, and finds it's mostly other awful people's fault.
(N.B., I'm guessing since I wouldn't go see Eat, Pray, Love with your eyeballs.)
Still, it works. Mostly.
Why? I think because it's mostly free of bullshit. There are times when our heroine seems to blame her bad behavior on her mother's death, e.g., but in the end she seems to find—well, I don't know, maybe the ending is bullshit, but I guess it worked for her.
This brings me back to Tracks, which works because the journey is the point. This is true of Wild as well, even though there's all this supporting material. And, frankly, it works because Witherspoon is good. But this has always been in her wheelhouse: Good-hearted characters who are flawed, even highly flawed, but still appealing.
She has to carry the movie, and pretty much does. Laura Dern has really the only other serious role in the movie as her mother, and the two play off each other as mother-and-daughter perfectly (despite only being less than ten years apart *kaff*). This part works very well, because we see Cheryl at her worst in a lot of ways, but in a way that is more relatable, perhaps, than the drug addiction/promiscuity thing.
Your mileage may vary, of course.
Screenwriter Nick Hornby (About A Boy, An Education) and director Jean-Marc Valleé (Dallas Buyer's Club) have done a good job here, as did producer Reese Witherspoon in sponsoring a project that showcased her talents.