' ' Cinema Romantico: Kodachrome

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


“Kodachrome” takes its name from the Eastman Kodak color reversal film beloved by photographers, professional or otherwise, all the way up until it went bust in 2010. Paul Simon explained Kodachrome by verse in the 70s, singing how it “Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.” True, but director Mark Raso’s movie is mostly cloudy given that it turns on a son, Matt Ryder (Jason Sudeikis), estranged from a father, Ben (Ed Harris), who is, as he must be, on death’s doorstep. His impending demise from cancer coordinates with the demise of Kodachrome itself, meaning that Ben, a renowned professional photographer, and his live-in nurse, Zooey (Elizabeth Olsen), enlist Matt to briefly squelch his anger to squire them from New York to Kansas to get Ben’s final rolls of old school Eastman Kodak developed at the last Kodachrome lab standing.

The movie was based on a jaunty 2010 New York Times piece by A.G. Sulzberger suggesting something like that scene in “Contact” when Jodie Foster's character encounters an endless parade of E.T.-adoring eccentrics camped outside Cape Canaveral. Alas, “Kodachrome” prefers to mope, which doesn’t have to be bad thing except the movie fails to extract any genuine revelation from all its despondency. Given that the movie centers on a road trip, and given that Kodachrome’s heyday was the 60s and 70s, and given that several conversations revolve around the authenticity and tangibility of actual film as opposed to the data & dust of our present day digital landscape (and which is nominally tied into Matt’s career as a music agent), it is tempting to think that “Kodachrome” might harken back to the American New Wave road trip movies. It does not. It forgoes breaking any rules, or even teasing narrative disobedience, to paint by numbers, right down to Ben’s Magical Negro manager (Dennis Haysbert).

What’s more, for a movie in which photography plays a pivotal part, the cinematography fails to inspire, opting for standard issue country-passing shots out of car windows and shots of Matt standing forlornly at windows of various places he stays. The exception is a shot of Ben in the backseat of the trio’s convertible seeing a young girl at the window of a passing Amtrak train and snapping her photo. As he does, he beams a smile ultimately revealed as the character’s most earnest moment in the whole movie, briefly unlocking a world in which his photographic subjects bring him more joy than his own kid at the wheel of the car.

That moment informs Harris’s agreeably prickly performance. He has a little Royal Tenenbaum about him, not that the movie explores it any real way. When Matt briefly catches sight of his father looking at him through a bathroom door, Ben quickly slams the door shot, a moment evoking a well of fatherly resentment that, like the scene itself, the movie keeps locked away. Instead Ben’s arc builds to a deathbed confessional. The dialogue, alas, illuminates little, though Harris gives the moment all he’s got, purposely refusing to look at Sudeikis’s character throughout, keeping his eyes closed.

Sudeikis, meanwhile, is as Sudeikis does, falling flat in dramatic moments and excelling when comically riffing with his counterparts, particularly Olsen. Oh, Zooey is a woefully written character, less any kind of actual nurse than a female who is there not to do much more than help change the male protagonist. That she does, exiting at the end of the 2nd act to give him space to figure things out, and then, when he has, re-appearing to embrace him. For God’s sake.

Still, Olsen, like Harris, musters up a little dimension on her own. When Matt pointedly begs to differ at her pleas to give his Dad a chance, Olsen lets the anger just roll right off, like his language is rain moving through a gutter and out the spout. Even better is a late night hang scene at some nameless bar where Zooey sings along to Live. Ostensibly this is nothing more than the trigger to Matt and Zooey’s Will They / Won’t They Moment, though Olsen makes it something more. It is, I suppose, glorified karaoke, but sometimes in karaoke the performer channels the artist being covered. And in channeling Ed Kowalczyk, Olsen makes it electrifying, comically electrifying and electrifying electrifying.

I know. I get it. It’s hard to explain. But then, Norman Maine once opined of Esther Blodgett, “She’s got a little something extra.” And people, I’m telling you, Olsen, in that moment, had a little something extra. It’s the one image in the whole movie you actually see — mystically, that is — in Kodachrome.

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