Frustrating ‘At Any Price’ with Dennis Quaid

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CHICAGO – Writer/director Ramin Bahrani is interested not in agendas, special effects, or broad statements. He makes films about characters, including the widely acclaimed “Chop Shop,” “Man Push Cart,” and “Goodbye Solo.” For his latest drama, “At Any Price,” Bahrani expands his canvas, using more household names in his effort to tell a story of the heartland and the corruption and greed that can infiltrate even the most seemingly pure aspects of American life. It is a film of noble origins with interesting ideas that nonetheless misses its mark due to a narratively unbelievable twist in the final act and another blank performance from Zac Efron. Dennis Quaid nearly makes it worth seeing on his own and I have no doubt that the multi-talented Bahrani can bounce back but this modern farmer’s tale is a melodrama that I simply didn’t buy.

Henry Whipple (Quaid) is a good guy who makes some morally questionable decisions right from the first act. In the opening scene, he’s teaching his son Dean (Efron) the art of the deal by trying to buy some farmland at the former owner’s funeral. The natural response is “ewww” but Henry, like so many people, is trying to keep his head above water. He’s facing pressure to keep his grain business the number one in the county while the competition, Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown), seems to be stealing his clients.

At Any Price
At Any Price
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

It doesn’t help the Whipple empire that one son, Grant, has basically run as far away from home as possible. They lay out the red carpet for the return of Grant but just get postcards about his latest adventure. It feels like Dean can’t wait to get out either as his career as a race car driver seems to be heating up. He’s even getting some interest from sponsors, has a cool girlfriend named Cadence (Maika Monroe), and can see the horizon beckoning him to leave the heartland. While he grows more distant from his philandering dad (who is sleeping with an assistant played by Heather Graham who is amoral enough to go from father to son), the Whipple world is truly shattered by two events – the revelation that Henry has been cutting corners in a way that could get them into legal trouble and a major turn that I won’t reveal here.

And that I didn’t believe. The final act of “At Any Price” turns on a contrivance. It’s an inserted dramatic twist that simply doesn’t resonate truthfully to this viewer. And so it starts to poison the rest of the film not unlike the bad grain Whipple sells. It’s also not like I was completely enraptured with the story of the Whipple clan before then. The bubble was easy to burst. This story of a man and his quest to save family and business often approaches old-fashioned, Sirk-esque melodrama in its first two acts and so the nose dive into soap opera in the final act isn’t unforeseeable. It’s just that I wanted the film to ground its more contrived storytelling elements in realism in the final act and Bahrani goes in the other direction.

At Any Price
At Any Price
Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Luckily, he has an incredibly talented actor to keep the film as tethered to reality as he can. Quaid was built for this kind of part. He’s “Everybody’s All-American,” the guy who one can easily believe as a farmland fixture but who also has enough depth to make us curious about what’s going on underneath. Sadly, I just don’t see the same depth in Efron. His Dean is paper thin, the kind of cliché that Bahrani used to fight against in his work. When he commits a crime to get an engine or fools around on his girlfriend, it feels like an actor going through the motions. There’s a truth that’s missing from Efron’s work and I’m starting to wonder if he’ll ever find it.

Bahrani is clearly seeking that kind of truth in all of his work. And so the disappointment that “At Any Price” feels false registers more profoundly. I have no doubt he’ll find it again in what I expect to be a long career. This journey into a more celebrity-driven cast and the heartland of America is far from a complete disaster, mostly thanks to the work by Quaid, but it is a misstep in a career devoid of them to this point.

“At Any Price” stars Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Maika Monroe, Clancy Brown, and Heather Graham. It was written and directed by Ramin Bahrani. It opens in Chicago today, May 3, 2013. content director Brian Tallerico

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