At Any Price (Frank’s Take) (film review).

April 27, 2013 | By | Reply More

Writer-director Ramin Bahrani (‘Chop Shop’, ‘Man Push Cart’, ‘Goodbye Solo’) tries his farm hand at the rural drama ‘At Any Price’ as he tries to plant the seeds of despair and dysfunction regarding Midwest farmers and the corporate world that threatens their livelihood. Bahrani’s soil-and-toil saga means well but it has all the dramatic effect of a rusty rake. Manipulative, wooden and preachy, ‘At Any Price’ is a mushy melodrama that basks in the trivial turmoil of its intended plight involving cornfields and conflict.

Although ambitious and contemplative, Bahrani’s dire farming fable never strives for anything beyond its step-by-step illustrations of planted clichés and cultivated transparent angst. ‘At Any Price’ is a variation of the 1980s farm movies such as ‘Country’ and ‘Places In The Heart’ that want to engage the audience in a compelling tale of struggle and the hardships that befall the countrified minions at the expense of the progressive indifference courtesy of big business and profit. True, this is a noble and poignant sentiment but the premise does not necessarily make for stimulating fodder that suffers so flatly in ‘At Any Price’.

The hayseed pathos that Bahrani and co-screenwriter Hallie Elizabeth Newton put forth in the Iowan surroundings is met with uneven results. There is a welcomed coziness to ‘At Any Price’ that ensures its tranquility and underlying tension-filled aura. The screenplay is riddled with dismissive dialogue and flaccid interpersonal stand-offs barely worth the level of an afternoon televised soap opera. Cinematography Michael Simmonds (‘Big Fan’) gloriously captures the vibrancy of the countryside in decorative coloring and shade. Still, At Any Price stagnates despite its revolving issues involving father-son complications, teen rebellion, adultery, failing business practices, youth-oriented romance and the race car circuit.

Farmer and seed distributor Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is a conflicted man being tugged by various sides of adversity. The complicated agriculture industry has compromised Henry’s manner in conducting his affairs accordingly. Henry’s rival (Clancy Brown) has drastically cut into his client base and proven to be a fierce competitor. The sign of the times is undeniably rough for farming family man Henry Whipple.

With his professional life already in shambles, Henry’s domestic existence is at a crossroads as well. Promising oldest son Grant was pegged to be the successor of the family farm just as Henry was when he received the property from his cranky father (Red West). Grant, a collegiate over-achiever and revered athlete, suddenly decides to drift off and climb mountains in Argentina. Disappointed by Grant’s wanderer status, Henry only has his youngest rebel son Dean (Zac Efron) to rely on to follow in his footsteps. The trouble is that Dean has his heart set on racing for NASCAR and is not interested in daddy Henry’s farming expectations. Plus, Dean is preoccupied with playing footsies with small-town galpal Cadence (Maika Monroe). Ironically, Cadence shows an aptitude for seed salesmanship and cares about what Henry does in his profession more so than his indifferent rug rat racer offspring Dean.

The strife builds for Henry as he cheats on his wife Irene (Kim Dickens) for his hotpants hussy Meredith (Heather Graham). Soon, Henry’s questionable seed-selling side business presents him with a tremendous scandal. It is clear that Henry has embraced the shadiness behind cut-throat tactics to get the job done. Regardless of the ethical considerations, Henry is a desperate soul sinking in his self-imposed downward spiral.

As a social drama, ‘At Any Price’ feels remote and convoluted. We are shown how flawed Quaid’s farmer is in the philandering, cutting-corners huckster Henry Whipple. He is smarmy and follows his worst instincts yet underneath we get some vague feeling that Henry could be a man of decency if given an even break. Bahrani gives us a jigsaw puzzle of Henry’s conflictions with estranged sons, marital negligence, titillating trysts with a standby bimbo and escalating employment woes yet these scattered pieces never seem to fit reasonably in the scheme of things thrown at us.

Quaid’s performance is quietly explosive even if it is contained within this melodramatic mushiness. Efron is miscast as the bratty stock car racer that rejects his father’s notion of a planned family business. Efron basically sports a vacant look as if someone came along and took away his Hot Wheels toy cars. The considerable sub-plot showcasing Monroe’s Cadence as a possible protégé of Quaid’s Henry felt more authentic and interesting than the tawdry angle spent on Graham’s mistress.

What ‘At Any Price’ does for the American farming system in the 21st century is what chocolate cupcakes do for the nutrition movement — absolutely nothing but serves as another preposterous obstacle to ponder. ‘Price’ is one less crop to consider harvesting.

At Any Price (2013)
Sony Pictures Classics
1 hr. 45 mins.
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Heather Graham, Kim Dickens, Maika Monroe, Clancy Brown, Brad Johnson and Red West
Directed by: Ramin Bahrani
MPAA Rating: R
Genre: Drama
Critic’s rating: ** stars (out of 4 stars)


Category: Films, MEDIA

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About FrankOchieng

Frank Ochieng has contributed film reviews to SF Crowsnest off and on since 2003. He has been published in other various movie site venues throughout the years. Ochieng has been part of The Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and had written film reviews for The Boston Banner newspaper (USA) and frequently is a media/entertainment panelist on WBZ NewsRadio 1030 AM on "The Jordan Rich Show" in Boston, Massachusetts/USA.

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