Netflix's ode to non-digital photography turns a poignant story into a conventional road trip yarn with uncomfortably ugly characters.
Kodachrome was the brand name for a type of color film introduced by Kodak in 1935. It was the preferred film of photography enthusiasts for years until it was discontinued in 2009, when digital won out like it always seems to do. In December of 2010, The New York Times wrote an article called “For Kodachrome Fans, Road Ends at Photo Lab in Kansas.” It was about an unlikely pilgrimage in which Kodachrome enthusiasts across the country flocked to a small family business in Parsons, Kansas called Dwayne’s Photo, which was to be the last place Kodachrome film would ever be processed.
The article is sweet and profound. It tells the story of Kodachrome obsessives and the powerful feelings they harbored for the technology that popularized color photography. Kodachrome, the Netflix film that was just released, is a fictionalized story of a father and son directly making that fabled Kansas pilgrimage. Unlike the real-world trek to Parsons, Kansas, however, Kodachrome features little warmth, nostalgia, or profundity.
Kodachrome tells the story of Matt Ryder (Jason Sudeikis), an executive for a small indie record label who is on the verge of losing his job unless he can sign “The Next Big Thing.” To complicate matters, Matt is approached by a woman name Zoe Barnes (Elizabeth Olsen) who tells him that she is an in-home nurse for Matt’s estranged father (Ed Harris), and that the old man is dying.
Harris’ Ben has one final wish for his son before he dies: he wants to embark on a road trip to Parsons, Kansas to have four rolls of Kodachrome film he just found developed. Ben is a brilliant photographer and he remembers every snapshot he’s ever took, so these four rolls are important. Matt has no interest in joining his emotionally abusive father on any trip, but a promise from Ben’s lawyer (a weirdly out-of-place but always welcome Dennis Haysbert) to introduce Matt to hot indie band Spare Sevens convinces him.
Kodachrome’s problems are two-fold. For starters, it’s a frustratingly basic and familiar take on a story with promise. Matt, Ben, and Zoe all fill out such easily identifiable archetypes that they may as well not have names. Matt is merely “Prodigal Son,” Ben is “Asshole Dad,” and Zoe is “Attractive Yet Attainable Woman Who Is Disturbingly Tolerant of the Bullshit She Puts Up with in a Professional Context to the Point Where Someone Should Probably Call the Cops But its Cool Because the Lead is Sometimes Nice to Her Even if He Does Get A Little Too Pushy Sometimes After Drinking.”
Anyone with a passing familiarity of road trip movies can probably guess the beats of the plot every step along the way. Matt, Ben, and Zoe go on a road trip like everyone else who has ever gone on a road trip in a movie. Matt, Ben, and Zoe stay at the same motels, they travel the same highways, they engage in the same banter, they argue with the same GPS, and they listen to the same indie songs while a cool Midwestern breeze caresses their perfect hair.
Granted, familiarity isn’t always a problem. Sometimes clichés are clichés for a reason, and the right story planted within the right movie can make them work. Just look at Little Miss Sunshine. That’s where Kodachrome’s other big issue comes into play. Before a predictable third act turnaround, this is an unexpectedly ugly film.
Ben is a terrible person. That’s by the story’s design, of course. It is still difficult to bear witness to and even more difficult to swallow once Matt starts to finally empathize with his dying dad. Ben left his family for years at a time. He skipped Matt’s mom’s funeral. He scandalized his brother’s family. He built up years of serious scar tissue and damage on Ben. When the movie tries to inevitably heal some of that scar tissue, it just feels like it doesn’t go far enough. It’s like Kodachrome is focusing on the wrong story.
“You like your women damaged, I guess,” Ben tells Matt in a particularly cruel moment. “You like to damage your women,” Matt responds.
The real story of Kodachrome is one man’s unique ability to destroy other people’s lives. But the movie instead wants to focus on how those lives can be fixed and for as poignant a concept as the last roll of color film ever processed is, it doesn’t go nearly far enough to justify Ben’s ugliness or fix anybody. By the film’s conclusion, any redemption or satisfying conclusion for Ben stems from him simply being Ed Harris, and not anything else the character does.
To be fair though, Harris is very, very special. The acting in Kodachrome is stellar across the board and comes damn close to transcending the distasteful, needless character rehabilitations at its center. Harris is so good and so thoroughly invested in his character that Ben merely being “Ed Harris” is almost enough to make the whole thing work. He has an energy and intensity about him that is fascinating to watch.
Sudeikis also does yeoman’s work as a lead here, underplaying the absurdity of a plot line focusing on a record executive in the Year of Our Lord 2010. Olsen as Zoe is the best though because of how high the degree of difficulty is. Zoe is so woefully underwritten and exists solely to offer a feminine-seal of approval on the male characters’ monstrous behavior. Still, Olsen has a level of charm, sophistication, and mysteriousness to make the character about 20 percent less offensive than she should be.
Fittingly, Kodachrome looks beautiful. The end credits proudly declare that the movie was “shot on 35mm Kodak film.” And that 35mm Kodak film does real work. Those indie song moments with the windswept hair and smiles all around look truly great. Kodachrome takes a pretty picture. It needs better captions.