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At Any Price

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/03/13 06:30:10

"Pain & Grain"
3 stars (Average)

Last week saw the release of "Mud," a film that saw an acclaimed indie filmmaker--Jeff Nichols--attempting to expand his cinematic scope with a larger-scale story populated with name actors with decidedly mixed results. This week, another indie filmmaker--in this case, Ramin Bahrani, the man behind such wonderful movies as "Man Push Cart," "Chop Shop" and "Goodbye Solo" (all of which you should see right this moment if you haven't already)--attempts a similar move with the new melodrama "At Any Price" and once again, the results are deeply flawed, though not entirely without merit.

Dennis Quaid stars as Henry Whipple, a Iowa farmer and seed dealer who dreams of one day turning the reins over to one of his sons. Trouble is, the older golden child has literally gone to the ends of the earth to escape farm life and resentful younger son Dean (Zac Efron) is more interested in pursuing a career as a race car driver. Alas, the "expand or die" principle that Henry constantly espouses has led to some questionable business practices and when investigators arrive to look into his possibly crooked dealings, he is faced with the possible loss of everything that he has worked for his entire life. In a surprising turn, Dean finds himself compelled to help his father as well but this leads to a situation where the consequences threaten to destroy his own life in the process.

The great thing about Bahrani's previous films--well, one of many--is that each one of them has a feel of authenticity that is rare in most movies these days--even though they have all been fictional constructs, there is not a single artificial moment to be had in any of them. By comparison, the storyline that he and co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton have concocted has an all-too-familiar feel to it--imagine a shotgun marriage between "Death of a Salesman," "All My Sons" and all those farm movies from the mid-Eighties and you have this one in a nutshell. Too many of the overly dramatic moments feels as if they were borne solely out of a need to move the story along as opposed to capturing the reality of contemporary farm existence.

There are also too many subplots on hand to distract from the central drama at hand. The stuff involving the problems between Dean and his girlfriend are forgivable because newcomer Malika Monroe brings a spark to the proceedings that elevates the otherwise mundane material. However, the diversion involving Heather Graham as Henry's girlfriend and her unique method of getting revenge on him for not leaving his wife is a whole lot of nothing. As for the ending, I recognize that it is meant to be a darkly ironic conclusion but somewhere along the way, it curdled to the point where it offers up bitter cynicism but nothing in the way of genuine insight.

Needless to say, "At Any Price" is more than a little flawed as a whole but it does contain a number of saving graces as well. The performances from Quaid and Efron are both strong and effective--this is easily the best work Quaid has done in a while and I admire Efron's continued determination to break out of the heartthrob image that he could still easily be milking if he wanted to. While the screenplay is too broad and obvious at times for its own good, there are times when it veers away from the expected cliches and developments--genetically-modified crops are treated not as a source of melodrama but as an ordinary fact of contemporary farm life and the response that Quaid's father (Red West) gives when his son begins hypocritically pining for the good old days of farming is flat-out brilliant. Working on a much bigger scale than before, Bahrani allows himself a couple of directorial excesses (a midpoint sequence that finds all the characters gathered for a rendition of the National Anthem is too self-conscious for its own good) but there are a number of moments when he captures the feel of living in a rural farming community struggling to keep up with the times and with each other.

In the end, though, "At Any Price" never quite pull together into a satisfying whole and while I don't want to dismiss it completely, I must admit that if I had to rank the features of Ramin Bahrani in preferential order, it would come in at a solid and unshakeable #4. And yet, thanks to the higher profile brought on by its cast of familiar faces, I have no doubt that this film will wind up making more money at the box-office than those previous features combined despite its marked inferiority. On the bright side, perhaps this higher profile will inspire some viewers to look up those earlier works and see for themselves what they had been missing. More importantly, having hopefully gotten his cinematic growing pains out of the way with this one, Bahrani will return with a film that will offer a better showcase for his considerable talents and drive "At Any Price" to #5 and beyond.

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