What it's about: Matt Ryder [Jason Sudeikis] is a music agent at a boutique label whose job is in jeopardy when he receives news that his father Ben [Ed Harris] only has a few months to live. Their relationship has been rocky for years, as Ben's photography career has made him largely absentee and his abrasive personality took a toll on Matt's mother's life. To reconnect in his dying days, Ben's personal assistant/nurse Zoe [Elizabeth Olsen] invites Matt to come on a road trip from New York to Kansas, where the last place to develop Kodachrome film exists. Ben's final legacy as an artist is found in uncovered, undeveloped work, and they must get to the photo lab before it will be lost forever. His legacy as a man and father may also be developed in this cross-country journey.
Kodachrome is the perfect kind of movie for Netflix as the streaming juggernaut continues with its insane release schedule. It is small and easily digestible but also broad in its appeal. It has a very good cast of actors with none of them being bankable stars. It is also a film that is thematically and cinematically resonant enough to stand out in the crowded landscape. Sure, it would have been better to see it in a movie theater as that is the general rule [Kodachrome has been shown on theater screens, at least in NYC, which is the criteria for me to be writing this] but I was perfectly happy to have it available to me for no extra cost on a Tuesday early evening.
I'm starting to wonder to what level Jason Sudeikis is underrated as a film actor. Certainly, he's been very successful by most standards. The blueprint of Kodachrome's leading man is a perfect fit for him and shows that he absolutely could have a higher profile. Sudeikis is really good at being smarmy and a little angry [throw in a bit of charm when necessary] -- if you saw his great performance in Colossal last year, you know that.
The first four scenes of the film are Matt in conflict with four different people [the hot music act who is dropping him, his boss who is about to fire him, Zoe who walks in at the wrong time, and his father]. This could be a very monotonous or abrasive way to start a film that wants you to eventually like these people. The actor's comic timing really helps these scenes to stay quick and sharp.
I will say, however, that Kodachrome does run into some problems in the most dramatic moments where it feels a bit too scripted. Characters tend to know exactly the perfect thing to say that would generate the biggest emotional punch. It could be a little messier, as much dramas could be.
Music has a big part to play to a slightly annoying degree. This is a movie for those who are big time purists of the music industry. Given the function of Matt's work, there is a whole lot of name dropping of important musical acts -- Matt seemingly discovers Coldplay and Arcade Fire but the suits don't listen to him and pass. It is a little strange, though, that the most important band in Kodachrome is a fictional one, though a band that we're supposed to just buy is as super popular and cool as those other super popular and cool bands. I suppose that if Arcade Fire made a cameo in the middle of this film as the band that Matt had to sway to sign it would have been really awkward, so the film doesn't have much of a choice.
The song "Lightning Crashes" plays a pivotal role in the narrative which basically erases all of the clunky ways Kodachrome uses music as a plot point. Truthfully, the way the song was introduced made me very angry until it pays off in a pretty satisfying way.
You couldn't have cast better than Ed Harris in the role of a hateful old prick artist in his dying days. If Kodachrome had a bigger profile, he'd be a contender for supporting actor awards at the end of the year.
His best attribute is his unwillingness to be liked as a character. Even by the end of the film, Ben isn't someone that becomes suddenly likeable through redemption. He's understandable, which is different, but no less profound.
Road movies are usually almost entirely about the journey, not the ending. Kodachrome really clicks when the destination has arrived, however. The final moments are incredibly touching. As someone who has always been susceptible to father-son relationship movies for personal reasons, the film didn't really hit me on that level until the very end, but it was worth the wait.
The conceit of journey to develop the last Kodachrome film actually works better than expected because the metaphors are so rich. Not only is the death of film and celluloid an actual thing that is happening, it perfectly mirrors a connection to Ben's health. And it doesn't push these metaphors too hard, they are allowed to develop [pun intended] until they make themselves clear. By the end of the film, you understand why the process of this journey was important without being pedantic or pretentious.