The accomplished actor did not inspire “Kodachrome” and he’s not the only thing in it, but when you’re looking for reasons to watch, his arresting performance stands way out.
No one needs to be told how good the four-time Oscar nominee is, but there is a tendency to take consistently superior work for granted, to forget the way great performers instinctively push past what’s expected and make what could be standard roles transcendent. Which is what happens here.
As written by Jonathan Tropper and directed by Mark Raso, “Kodachrome” is a solid citizen of a movie. Its emotional story of father-son dynamics with a hint of romance thrown in, all set against the world of professional photography, is not without its pro-forma elements. But Mr. Harris is not one of them.
The actor plays Benjamin Ryder, “one of the world’s greatest living photographers,” but a failure as a father and a bitter disappointment to his son Matt (the usually comic Jason Sudeikis).
On paper, sour, unpleasant, self-involved Ben Ryder is a familiar personality, maybe too familiar. But Harris brings so much all-in commitment to the part, has so fearlessly invested himself in the character, that we have to sit up and take notice.
Insisting on his right to be unpleasant, Harris makes Ben edgier, more self-aware and more impossible to ignore than anyone else would. That kind of integrity, that willingness to be understood as completely dislikable, raises “Kodachrome” to a level it would not reach without him.
The film’s story was inspired by a charming 2010 New York Times piece by A.G. Sulzberger (now the Times’ publisher) about the final days of Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, the last lab in the world to process Kodachrome, the gold standard of color film.
Ryder’s work (though not his personality and not this fictitious story) is a product of celebrated National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry, who in fact visited Dwayne’s in its final days.
Before we get to Ben, or any mention of photography for that matter, we meet Matt Ryder (Sudeikis), a 35-year-old New York-based music executive at Spitting Devil records who is facing one of those career turning points so beloved of movies.
Though he’s got great ears, Matt’s about to be fired because his meal ticket band is defecting to another label. His one chance to stay alive is to persuade another top act, Spare Sevens, to sign with him.
Waltzing into Matt’s office at precisely this crisis point is attractive Zooey Kern (Elizabeth Olsen), who introduces herself as the caregiver/assistant for Ben.
The young woman tells Matt his father has but a few months to live. He’s also just come across four rolls of Kodachrome he shot at the beginning of his career and, aware that Dwayne’s is closing and suspicious of Federal Express, he wants his son to drive him and the film to the Midwest.
Matt proceeds to give a classic “you’re mistaking me for someone who gives a damn” speech, relating that he and his father have not spoken in 10 years and swearing on all that’s holy that this trip will never take place.
Without the trip, however, there is no film, so “Kodachrome” allows Ben’s savvy manager (Dennis Haysbert) to come up with a stratagem to make it happen. Before you know it Matt, Zooey and dear old dad are settled into a vintage red Saab convertible headed to the heartland.
Matt, as it turns out, is very much his father’s son — sour, resentful, difficult and unwilling to see things any way but his own. Sudeikis does well with the part, but it seems for awhile that dueling malcontents may not be a recipe for success.
But, as acted by Harris, Ben’s breathtaking ability to sow chaos and cause trouble commands our attention, especially in a sequence where the trio visits Ben’s wary brother Dean (Bruce Greenwood) and his aura-reading wife, Sarah (Wendy Crewson), a couple who were like parents to Matt.
Screenwriter Tropper has also constructed some solid father and son sparring matches about the value of being a good person versus being a great artist, which Harris and Sudeikis make the most of.
Less successful, because it surprises no one but the participants, is the inevitable attraction between Matt and Zooey. The actors try their best to make it fresh but complete success here is not in the cards.
There are areas, like the film’s denouement in Kansas and after, where, with Harris leading the charge, “Kodachrome” creates strong emotional effects. The actor has not been nominated for an Oscar since “The Hours” in 2003, and it’s about time that happened again. In fact, it’s about time he won.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: Landmark, West Los Angeles; streaming on Netflix