‘At Any Price,’ an indie heartland drama, needs some pruning
BY RICHARD ROEPER SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST May 2, 2013 1:34PM
‘AT ANY PRICE’ ★★
Henry Dennis Quaid
Dean Zac Efron
Cliff Red West
Meredith Heather Graham
Irene Kim Dickens
Byron Chelcie Ross
Sony Pictures Classics presents a film directed by Ramin Bahrani. Written by Bahrani and Hallie Elizabeth Newton. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated R (for sexual content including a strong graphic image, and for language). Opening Friday at Landmark Century.
Updated: June 4, 2013 6:05AM
So here is the first movie in recent memory — OK, the first movie EVER — to merge the worlds of genetically modified seed farming and second-tier NASCAR-type stock-car racing.
Not to mention the subplot that has a liquored-up local hussy seducing a young man in a grain silo to get back at his father, with whom she was previously sleeping.
And what’s the deal with the government investigation into a local business scandal, not to mention the local man who goes missing after a fight in a cornfield? What in the name of Iowa is happening in this town?
With a title so generically forgettable I had to look it up an hour after I screened it, “At Any Price” is the movie equivalent of one of those Christmas trees festooned with far too many “zany” ornaments and decorations that are designed to showcase creative versatility — but just leave us scratching our heads and wondering who thought this mishmash was a good idea.
It’s weird, is what it is. Not in a good way most of the time.
Dennis Quaid, he of the grin that gets more maniacal and the eyes that pop open wider with each passing year, actually puts those facial tics and his acting muscles to good use here. He gives one of his more interesting performances in the last decade as Henry Whipple, an increasingly desperate Iowa farmer and seed salesman who’s well past 50 but is still trying to earn the respect of his old-school father (Red West), even as he’s growing further apart from his own two grown sons.
Henry Whipple has a name out of a whimsical children’s book, but this guy is so grin-and-grip intense when he’s trying to sell you, so tone-deaf to the way people react to him, so unrelentingly unlikable, you wonder why anyone would do business with him. Heck, you wonder why his wife didn’t pack up and leave a decade ago, especially since she knows about Henry’s tomcatting ways.
Little wonder Henry’s sons want nothing to do with him. The older boy, a former football hero, is off on a globe-trotting mission to find himself. (This makes front-page news in their town, which isn’t THAT small.) The younger son, Dean (Zac Efron), has zero interest in the seed-selling game and seethes with anger every time Henry approaches. All Dean wants to do is make enough money on the local dirt-racing circuit so he can get out of town and become a professional stock car driver.
Director Ramin Bahrani is an enormously talented artist who gave us two of the best films of the previous decade: “Man Push Cart” (2005) and “Chop Shop” (2007). (Please rent.) Here he’s working on an “American Gothic” canvas with a half-dozen recognizable actors and some big-picture themes about the plight of the 21st century farmer, as told through the perspective of a Willy Loman-esque character and his dysfunctional family. But the inner workings and ethical/legal trappings of the Genetically Modified Seed game will glaze your eyes, while the soap-opera twists and turns grow increasingly ludicrous.
“At Any Price” is beautifully photographed, and the acting is solid, but it’s all over the place. Everyone in this movie is supposed to be a real person in the real world, but at times it’s as if we’re watching an alien, parallel universe that has mirrored the trappings of our universe, but nothing approaching any real truths.