AT ANY PRICE
1/2 star out of 4 stars
The mere existence of "At Any Price" is a stupefying mystery. In addition to being ill-conceived and wretchedly executed, it features some of the worst acting you'll ever witness and insults the very same microcosm of a demographic to which it is trying to appeal. It is easily the worst film so far this year and in what has been a mostly sub-par 2013, that's saying a lot.
You know things are terribly afoul before the first image of any live-action is ever seen. Although it stars not one but two relatively-bankable leads (Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron), it is distributed by a boutique studio (Sony Classics) and was funded by no less than six production companies. For casual viewers, this might not mean much but anyone working in or around the edges of the film industry recognizes these factors as huge red flags. If you can't get a major studio to pick up a family drama set in the nation's heartland with marquee-level talent, you either don't know what you're doing or you're trying to peddle something no one wants to see -- or both.
The American-born Iranian writer/director Ramin Bahrani ("Chop Shop," "Man Push Cart," "Goodbye Solo") is enamored with the lives and lifestyles of everyday people and even when he misses his mark with a narrative, he usually nails the appropriate tone. Thus far his films have been totally character-driven but here (along with co-writer Hallie Elizabeth Newton) he makes the mistake of relying on a strain of exaggerated, far-reaching, melodramatic plotting that you might find in a low-rung daytime soap or basic-cable TV reality show.
The lone, solitary facet of the story the writers get kind of right is with a subplot involving genetically modified/engineered, pesticide-resistant seeds. Whether they intended to or not, the writers' story smacks heavily of the recent backlash that came in the wake of what is now commonly being referred to unofficially as the "Roundup" or "Monsanto Protection Act."
Without going heavy on the details, this slab of suspect legislation wreaks of corporate influence-peddling for the sole purpose of creating an agricultural monopoly. In effect, the strong-armed, thug-like enforcement (recently made law by President Barack Obama, buried deep in the bowels of another bill) strictly prohibits farmers from using washed and/or multi-generational seeds from farmers' initial crop yields and compels them to buy new seeds from Monsanto every year. (Note: the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this past Monday in a related case with a favorably-limited, "patent-exhaustive" case on a lawsuit filed by Monsanto against an Indiana farmer.)
There is enough dramatic potential there for Bahrani to make his own "Norma Rae," "Erin Brokovich" or "Silkwood." But he instead treats it as an incidental afterthought. At its heart, the film is an "East of Eden" type of handwringing, father-son piece of tripe that is simply painful to watch; not because it is powerful and tragic but because it is dramatically inert and stillborn.
Quaid plays Henry Wipple, a backslapping, glad hand Iowa farmer and (as he states with painful regularity) the (sometimes) top selling seed salesman in seven or whatever counties. Henry's wide, clenched-teeth grin, vice-grip handshake, barely-masked fear of failure, prideful impudence and percolating self-loathing is Willy Loman incarnate minus anything redeemable.
Fancying himself as a cornpone land baron, Henry attends the funerals of other farmers in the hopes of buying their land from their distraught, distracted heirs and winning over former customers with chilled candy bars. He would be sympathetic if he weren't such an obnoxious tool.
None of this is lost on Henry's youngest son Dean (Efron) who wants nothing to do with his father or carrying on the family farm thing. Dean instead wants to be a NASCAR driver and is auditioning for possible financial backers while tearing up the local dirt/8-track circuit. When not racing, a drunken Dean uses a semiautomatic pistol to break into and then shoplift from a motor parts store, dates a girl who fancies old-school porn magazines and becomes semi-involved with the local cougar/town tramp (Heather Graham). This stuff is a far cry from "High School Musical" and only the most recent attempt on Efron's part to prove he's a Serious Adult Actor. It's another swing and a colossal miss for the not-quite-so-young anymore Efron.
Just when you think you couldn't like Henry or Dean any less, they do something incredibly stupid and boneheaded to prove you wrong. This is the point where the movie goes from being just irritatingly vapid to decidedly offensive. It won't begrudge city folk on a personal level but will certainly do so intellectually. But for Iowans, farmers and salt-of-the-earth types it will strike a flagrantly vile, discomforting chord and throw a maligning, cold slap in the face that will be irrevocably irreversible. (Sony Classics)