At Any Price (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

film at-any-price_smIt’s one of those movies that is so bad, it’s confusing how it could have ever gotten to be as bad as it is.




film at-any-price

Ramin Bahrani is probably one of those directors you’ve heard of, but whose movies you’ve never actually seen. (His feature films are Man Push Cart, Goodbye Solo, and Chop Shop.) He’s American, and his new film At Any Price seems to be his first likely to be seen by a wider American audience: It has recognizable stars in it—Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, and Heather Graham—and is the very American-seeming story of a corn farmer father and his hotheaded, racecar-driving son. Roger Ebert was long one of Bahrani’s most vocal champions, and At Any Price was shot on or near Ebert’s old stomping ground in rural Illinois.

It’s a shame that At Any Price is positioned to be Bahrani’s breakout film, because it’s one of those movies that is so bad, it’s confusing how it could have ever gotten to be as bad as it is. The acting is terrible (particularly from Quaid and Maika Monroe, who plays Efron’s girlfriend Cadence), the dialogue is dopey and wooden, the plot is predictable and, again, dopey, etc. It’s a real mess.

The conflict in the film arises from the fact that Henry Whipple (Quaid) wants one of his two sons to take over his corn-farming and seed-selling business—which is important to keep in the family in the close-knit community where they live and work—but his sons want nothing to do with him. His eldest son Grant (Patrick Stevens) keeps finding reasons to not come home (his most recent one is that he’s going to climb a mountain in Argentina), and his younger son Dean (Efron) is only interested in racing cars—though the good news is that he’s good enough at it that he might be able to go pro at it. The character of Henry is intentionally written to come across as fake (among other things, he tries to project a surface of being very honest and straightforward, but we see from the beginning that his business tactics are shady at best), but the way he’s written and the way Quaid plays him come across as comically fake-fake, as opposed to the way real-fake people like him act in real life.

There’s no real saving grace to this film, but I can say that Zac Efron turns in a better performance than those around him. I appreciate that Efron seems to be making a real effort to take challenging roles in films by talented directors instead of just falling back on his looks and his tween fan base as he so easily could have. It’s just a shame that the films he winds up working on with these interesting directors always seem to be weak entries in said directors’ oeuvres. (See also Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy and Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles.) Hopefully Efron sticks with this career path, though; sooner or later he’s bound to work on a good film by a good director, and he seems to actually have the talent to succeed when this opportunity arises. | Pete Timmermann

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