Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Movie Review: Kodachrome

Kodachrome *** / *****
Directed by: Mark Raso.
Written by: Jonathan Tropper based upon the article by A.G. Sulzberger.
Starring: Ed Harris (Ben Ryder), Jason Sudeikis (Matt Ryder), Elizabeth Olsen (Zoe Barnes), Gethin Anthony (Jasper), Bruce Greenwood (Dean), Dennis Haysbert (Larry), Wendy Crewson (Aunt Sara).
The thing about road trip movies is that you don’t want too much plot to get in the way of the conversations and music that pour out over those long drives through Middle America. The plot always gets in the way of the reason the movie exists – which is normally to force people together that don’t want to be together, and make them make peace with each other along the way. They’ll always stop at quaint diners, or to visit long forgotten family members, etc. Old wounds will be reopened and healed, etc. But if you spend too much on the mechanics of why everything is happening, the whole thing kind of falls apart. Kodachrome is a film that desperately wants to be Alexander Payne’s Nebraska – in which a cranky old father and his listless son hit the road together, in order for the old man to collect his sweepstakes winnings that the son damn well knows is fake, but goes anyway. But Kodachrome feels the need to add in a bunch of other stuff that gets in the way of that central dynamic. When the film works, it works quite well – mainly because of three really good performances at its core. But it’s undeniably trying too hard.
In the film, Jason Sudeikis is Matt, a music executive at a boutique label, who is about to be fired because his biggest client has just walked out the door. He can keep his job if he signs another band that he knows is unhappy with their major label – but he cannot seem to get a meeting with them. His father, Ben (Ed Harris) reenters his life after a decade of estrangement. He is dying of cancer, only has a few months to live – but wants to do one last thing before he goes. Ben is a great photographer – world renowned – but he only shoots on Kodachrome film, and Kodak has stopped making the dyes that along them to be developed. There’s one last place – in Parsons, Kansas – who will develop the photos, but only for another couple of weeks. Ben, for reasons he doesn’t explain, wants Matt to drive him – and his pretty, young nurse Zoe (Elizabeth Olsen) – to Kansas to get the photos developed. In order to get him to agree, Ben’s manager (Dennis Haysbert) has arranged a meeting in Chicago with that band Matt really, really needs to sign.
You know where this film is going from the outset, and it gets there in a mostly satisfying, occasionally strained way. Harris has always been a good actor, but he’s particularly good at playing assholes – and Ben is nothing if not an asshole, knows it, and doesn’t much care about it. He is a great artist, and if he had to sacrifice everything for his art, so be it. Harris may well be playing a version of his Pollock, but with less support around him. Sudeikis is good here as well – as the exasperated son. He hates his old man, and his life hasn’t turned out the way he wanted it to. He has a lot of pent up resentments – most of them well earned – but he’s here anyway. Olsen probably has the most difficult role, because it is clearly the most under-written – she isn’t quite a manic pixie dream girl, but she isn’t that far off either. You know that the film will throw her and Sudeikis together, because that’s what movies like this do. But Olsen makes the character better than it probably should – bringing an immense amount of charm to her performance, especially in a drunken scene when she starts singing along to Live’s Lightning Crashes. I think sometimes the real test of an actors skill is not delivering a great performance in a well written role, but making a poorly written role seem better than it really is – Olsen passes that test here.
The film, eventually, becomes a father-son male weepie in the final reel, and then when you think it’s done doing that, saves one more male weepie moment for the film’s final scene. Intellectually, you know you’re being shamelessly manipulated, but dammit if the film doesn’t work anyway.
Ultimately, Kodachrome kind of feels like someone saw Nebraska, and decided they wanted to make it more audience friendly – throw in more plot, more heartwarming moments, a love interest, some music, and get everyone to cry at the end. If the lead actors didn’t sell the film so well, the film may well have not worked at all. Instead, it’s another passable, if ultimately forgettable Netflix original – although not one they made themselves, just one they bought. Which makes the film take on another level of irony – since Ben is desperate to preserve the things of the past, and the end credits make it known that the film was shot on Kodak film – and yet we’re all watching it digitally. Or as Ben says “digital specks of dust”.

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