At Any Price (* ½ / ****)
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron
Director: Ramin Bahrani
As I hurried into the Embarcadero for the April 7 preview screening of At Any Price, I spied a blurb on the poster that gushed about “the performance of a lifetime” from star Dennis Quaid. But by the time the closing credits rolled, I didn’t come close to sharing that sentiment. And when I got a better look at that quote afterward, was I surprised that its source was none other than…
My idol, the late Roger Ebert.
I rarely second-guess myself when critiquing a movie, but I wondered if he had seen something in Quaid’s portrayal to which I was ignorant. Possibly, but as peerless as Ebert was, I didn’t take everything he reviewed as gospel, and At Any Price is certainly no exception.
Indeed, what could have been a fascinating tale about the cutthroat underbelly of Big Agriculture (renowned industry mottos include “Expand or Die” and “Get Big or Get Out”) is instead merely a painful exercise in over-the-top acting and direction that reduces the proceedings to little more than white-trash Lifetime. It’s certainly not boring, but it’s too absurd to be otherwise.
Quaid stars as Henry Whipple, who owns a 3,000-acre farm in the middle of Iowa corn country. His eldest – and favorite – of his two sons, Grant (Patrick Stevens, seen only in an opening-credits flashback), has packed up and left for South America, leaving rebellious younger Dean (Zac Efron), who Henry pins his hopes on taking over the family business, but Dean predictably wants none of it, instead focusing on a career in racing with hopes of making it to ARCA (basically NASCAR’s equivalent of Triple-A baseball). Both are introduced attending a funeral, after which Henry cuts a deal with the bereaved family to buy the deceased’s 200 acres while handing them his card, a genuinely tacky maneuver that I suppose is also the nature of the business. It’s an olive branch of sorts to lure Grant back home, but no dice. I can’t say I blame him.
The Whipples’ farm is leveraged in the millions (at least according to the press notes), but Henry tries to keep a brave face while holding a side gig as a huckster for Liberty Seeds, a company that produces genetically modified corn in high-enough volumes to force its competitors out of business, and he soon has investigators on his tail after it’s alleged that he’s illegally cleaning and reusing the stock. He risks losing everything if guilty, but the impact in these and any other Big Crises the Whipples face is smothered by Quaid’s hamfisted schtick that seems to be channeling a Corn Belt version of Clark Griswold, and whenever he’s not speaking, his face is crumpled into a visage that would give you the impression a skunk is standing right under his nose.
The other characters are equally artificial that they could have been churned out by Liberty as well. Henry’s cliché-blustering father Cliff (Red West) is ready to dispel admonishments or Hallmark platitudes to his son when needed, and Henry’s milquetoast wife Irene (Kim Dickens) is relegated to the background whenever there’s nothing requiring her concern, while having resigned herself to knowing of Henry’s occasional dalliances with a local fortysomething named Meredith (Heather Graham, who ought to be embarrassed). Meanwhile, Dean has a typical scantily-clad girlfriend, Cadence (Maika Monroe, in her big-screen debut), into whom the script imbues unexpected business savvy when she accompanies Henry on his sales rounds but it’s too forced to be believable.
The latter tidbit aside, director Ramin Bahrani seemingly couldn’t get enough of treating his film’s women as little more than sex objects, as the picture is not even thirty minutes old when we get the first of three gratuitous visual aids that he believes serve as plot points. I guess there are only so many ways to liven up a story about something as dull as corn farming, but Bahrani also ends up shooting himself in the foot as it helped slap the film with a potentially box office-denting R-rating, despite lack of nudity. (Worse, one of the authors of this misogynist script is a woman, Hallie Elizabeth Newton.)
Anyway, Henry also needs a rival, which comes in fellow farmer Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown, too good for this), who’s been snatching away some of Henry’s top accounts. His own son, Brad (Ben Marten), is conveniently also a driver because his sole purpose in the story is to butt heads with Dean. It’s hard not to look at any racetrack scenes as anything other than a poor man’s Days of Thunder, right down to the persistent Chevrolet product placement.
Dean’s old, beat-up Monte Carlo is easier on the senses than the guy driving it. Efron is borderline intolerable as a one-dimensional mixture of Charlie St. Cloud and Cole Trickle. He’s also at the center of Bahrani’s forcing of cheap drama into the second half of the picture, including an embarrassing scene where Dean confronts the Liberty investigators with a walking stick. I guess it’s also worth noting that this is already the third film I’ve seen this year in which someone crashes a car head-on into a hard surface.
I hated the ending at first, but the more I reflected on it, the more it grew on me because it’s the only segment that has any sense of intrigue, as we see how the Whipples maneuver their way through the aftermath of a climactic event, but it just makes it all the more frustrating that the first three quarters of the film couldn’t be bothered to follow suit.
© 2013 Jane F. Carlson