Kodachrome Review

In keeping with Tuesdays with Cory’s film-themed banner, I decided to pick a Netflix original to review this week that has a film-inspired title and premise, and a decent amount of approval on Rotten Tomatoes, albeit without consensusKodachrome released just a few weeks back, on April 20th, and since seeing the trailer by sheer happenstance I’ve wanted to give it a look.  And no, while there is a brief tongue-in-cheek mention early in the movie, it’s not about the Paul Simon song, nor is the Paul Simon song ever played.  Missed opportunity in the opinion of some, I’m sure.

What it’s actually based on is apparently a New York Times article about the zenith of Kodachrome film.  The logline of the movie, as written by me: Matt Ryder (Jason Sudeikis) is a quippy down-on-his-luck record label employee who’s struggling to find reliable talent, and who is suddenly forced to take a trip to Kansas with his ailing and estranged father (Ed Harris) – along with his father’s attractive nurse (Scarlet Witch – ahem, Elizabeth Olsen) – to make a last-ditch attempt to save his career and help his father, a world-famous photographer, develop some old film.  There’s quite a bit more to it than that in theory, but in practice most scenes in Kodachrome amount to Sudeikis and Harris roasting each other in a car or at a dinner table until a minor character intervenes and tells them to calm down.  It sounds simple enough, but believe me, it manages to be pretty entertaining at times.

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One of the tamer scenes in Kodachrome in terms of these two roasting each other.

This is because Kodachrome‘s strongest point is its dialogue, which is fairly zippy and (dare I say) Sorkin-esque throughout.  This is crucial to any successes the film has, given that it’s essentially a father-son drama masquerading as a road movie that more or less just boils down to people sitting in various places talking.  It’s a movie that’s primarily about relationships, and those relationships need to be developed through smart writing, and I think Kodachrome is at least somewhat smartly written, at least in microscale.  This is evinced by the strength of the characters – namely Harris’ Ben – who attain depth that tries to hide beneath the veneer of the spoken word, but can still be seen, if only a little.  The audience is implored to look closer to get a better look at it, and with most characters what the audience finds is often unsettling.

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A subtle shout-out to the New York Times (who printed the article that wound up being the film’s inspiration) in this shot.

The problem with this model is that in many cases, you can see the secrets the characters are going to reveal – either through their actions or their words – before they reveal them.  Kodachrome‘s single biggest point of failure is without a doubt its predictability, which especially rears its ugly head in the movie’s romantic subplot, though I will give this aspect some credit for being an exercise in brinksmanship for the first half – that chunk winds up being far deeper and more compelling than the standard fare of the second half could ever be.  When it comes to the dynamic between Olsen and Sudeikis, you find yourself not wanting the predictability you know you’ll eventually get, and it still manages to leave a bad taste in your mouth even when the filmmakers seemingly hold out for as long as they can before giving it to you.

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My main question after watching Kodachrome is where I can buy that hat.

This predictability strays well outside the realm of the romantic, too, as the ending – the development of the Kodachrome film designed to deliver the movie’s emotional payload after an hour and a half of road-tripping – delivers more or less exactly what you’d expect.  The message itself that Kodachrome has isn’t a bad one, and the film seems well-intentioned on the whole, but I’d argue that the denouement is more or less white noise.  This is especially upsetting given that the turning point that leads the movie into the third act is actually reasonably unexpected and clearly results in workable character growth for pretty much everyone involved.

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The makeup department really did a good job at making Ed Harris look like three-quarters dead.

Of the few cast members who have more than a few lines in Kodachrome, the one worthy of the most praise is without a doubt Ed Harris, playing Ben Ryder, a renowned photographer with liver cancer and no close friends and family.  Harris, playing a pivotal character whose primary job is to lob a number of hard truths towards the younger and perhaps more optimistic characters, is transfixing in his role, and in certain scenes elevates the lesser talents of Olsen and Sudeikis to his clearly seasoned level.  Sudeikis, while plenty earnest and hardly hurting the overall bottom line of the film, didn’t really cut it for me as a leading man, and I could imagine a number of similarly inclined actors filling the shoes of Matt Ryder better.  Also, obligatory shoutout to Dennis Haysbert (the Allstate guy) in an extremely minor role.

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Ed Harris probably should have just been wearing that hat for the whole movie.

Another character worthy of mention: the soundtrack.  Given Matt Ryder’s background, and the overall focus of the movie on the pain and sacrifice of art, the audio heard throughout seems to be as important to conveying the overall emotion as the visual.  One could argue that this is running in parallel with the give-and-take relationship that forms between the music-oriented son and the photographer father as their journey takes them to Kansas to, as Ben puts it, “commit moments to eternity.”  This quote, which comes towards the end as Harris’ character discusses photography and how those who choose it as a profession are preservationists by nature, is just one of many dimes that he drops throughout Kodachrome‘s events.

Kodachrome is a film that I wish had been less predictable, as I thought the premise, soundtrack, acting, and overall execution were at least better-than-average.  It’s hardly a groundbreaking drama in any sense, but you can definitely do worse, especially if you’re looking for something to stream for free.  For those of my readers out there seeking a star rating, I’d probably give it 2.5 – 3 out of 4 stars.  Take from that what you will, but don’t expect many surprises.

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