Old enough to have served as a signifier of bygone nostalgia way back when Paul Simon wrote a song about it in 1973, Kodachrome color film was officially phased out at the end of the last decade, and by 2010, there was just a single lab left in the country that could process it. When that lab, Dwayne’s Photo, announced it would stop handling Kodachrome by the end of the year, vintage photography lovers made a pilgrimage to Parsons, Kansas, to develop one last roll.
That real-life digital age milestone serves as the hook for director Mark Raso’s road-trip dramedy “Kodachrome,” which reunites an acclaimed, dying photojournalist with his estranged, record company executive son as they make the abovementioned journey together. Shot on 35mm, and full of odes to the greatness of analog technology, “Kodachrome” isn’t nearly as cranky as it sounds, and thanks to some likable performances from Jason Sudeikis, Elizabeth Olsen and Ed Harris, it’s an entirely watchable if entirely by-the-numbers throwback to the sweet-and-sour Sundance-style indie films of yore. But there’s a blurry boundary between “vintage” and simply “passé,” and “Kodachrome” is too often caught on the wrong side of that line.
When we meet thirtysomething New York A&R man Matt (Sudeikis), he’s hanging out at a bar as his rock star client plays a gig next door, having set an alarm so that he can swoop in just as the set ends. Clearly, the thrill of his job is gone: He’s starting to look a bit too old for his trusty leather jacket, his last big act announces he’s jumping ship to Interscope, and the head of Matt’s label chews him out in the office the next morning, threatening to fire him unless he can convince a rising rock band called the Spare Sevens to sign with the label in the next two weeks.
Waiting for him back at his desk is Zooey (Olsen), a brightly assertive young woman who introduces herself as both nurse and personal assistant to Matt’s father, Ben (Harris). Just the mention of his father’s name is enough to prompt Matt to call security, but she implores him to reconsider: Afflicted with liver cancer, Ben only has three months to live, and he’s desperate for Matt to accompany the two of them on a car trip to Kansas to develop four mysterious, long-hoarded Kodachrome rolls before Dwayne’s Photo calls time on the format.
There’s not much subtlety in the early plotting here. Right away, we’ve been given no less than three ticking clock deadlines, as well as an obvious Chekhov’s gun, and the film practically trips over itself to explain away potential narrative inconsistencies. Why drive all the way from New York to Kansas? Ben hates flying. Why not simply mail the film in? Ben doesn’t trust FedEx. And most importantly, why would Matt agree to accompany the father he so deeply resents on a long road trip? For this, we need Ben’s well-connected business manager Larry (Dennis Haysbert), who promises to arrange a sit-down between Matt and the Spare Sevens in Chicago, as long as he makes it a detour on the trip with Zooey and his dad.
Once they get on the road, however, the plot machinations relax, and we can start to figure out who these characters are. Unlike too many similar family melodramas, Matt’s reasons for hating his father aren’t withheld unnecessarily – Ben slept around on Matt’s mom, and spent all the most pivotal moments of his son’s life away on assignment. These Oedipal tensions simmer, and occasionally rise to a thought-provoking boil, as the threesome head toward Chicago. Meanwhile Matt and the recently-divorced Zooey start to make eyes at one another, and Sudeikis and Olsen display some charming, low-key chemistry.
Yet Harris is unquestionably the best thing about “Kodachrome,” and he consistently fights to deny his character the sort of valedictory slide into warm fuzziness that one has been trained to expect in movies like this. He may be lonely, he may long for forgiveness, and deep down he may sincerely love his son, but Ben is no grump with a heart of gold – he’s mostly a thoughtless asshole, and Matt has every right to be wary of him. But the film isn’t nearly so bold as Harris’ performance, clearly nudging Ben toward a catharsis that the actor is unwilling to allow him, and director Raso never finds a way to navigate that tension.
He gets little help from the screenplay. At times screenwriter Jonathan Tropper cooks up some cute bits – such as a “Who’s on first?” routine involving the band Live – but time and time again, sentences that should have stayed in offscreen character notes surface in sourly literal lines of dialogue. We know Matt needs to let his guard down and is living in the shadow of his father long before Zooey tells him, “you need to let your guard down” and “you’re living in the shadow of your father,” and this impulse to spell out even the most obvious subtext keeps the film from really digging into its characters. As a great songwriter once said, everything looks worse in black-and-white.