Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Written by Ramin Bahrani & Hallie Elizabeth Newton
Baby steps. That what Bahrani seems to be doing here, attempting to break into the mainstream a little bit more than his previous films (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo), and from a creative perspective, telling a little bit more of a traditional story. He finally has professional actors to work with, despite the fact that his three previous films were all lifted by the wonderful performances of his amateur actors, adding another level of reality to the already hefty dose presented in the films’ narrative and style. Yet, Bahrani’s film is still an indie offering, and opened in Columbus against Hollywood blockbusters Fast and Furious 6 and The Hangover III, showing on just a single screen across town. However, with his baby steps, Bahrani may have fallen on his bum, or even gone a little backwards with his latest.
At Any Price is a Midwestern rural tale following the Whipple family as they look to control the seed market in a number of counties in Iowa. “Expand or die”, they say. Henry (Dennis Quiad) is the patriarch with a sharp, cutthroat business mind. He took the farm from his father (Red West), and plans on expanding it for his sons Grant and Dean (Zac Efron) to take over eventually, but he faces stiff competition from the Johnson’s, led by their patriarch Jim (Clancy Brown). Grant has travelled to South America to escape his father, and Dean has his eye on becoming a NASCAR driver to find a way out of Iowa with his girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe). The family feud and the will to win put the Whipple’s in a tight spot, and they must find a way to put their differences aside, or die.
One of the strangest things about the film is the way in which it misses, which seems to show some growing pains for writer/director Ramin Bahrani, who the late Roger Ebert once said was the new great American film director. And with good reason, his first three films are all explosive neo-realist explorations using amateur actors to great effect. But with At Any Price he makes a not so smooth transition to the professional acting realm. But what makes it so much stranger, Bahrani gets some great performances here. Clancy Brown and Chelcie Ross, lifetime character actors, are quite good here. Maika Monroe, an unknown also gets some great moments as Dean’s girlfriend. But Efron seems stuck in the melodramatic cheese of High School Musical. He shows some growth, but ultimately lacks any true charisma. And then there is Dennis Quaid, who plays fake perhaps too well.
Henry Whipple is very fake, but Quaid’s interpretation of the character is one that borders on awkward at times. It’s one of those anomalies that is either a brilliant turn, or a poorly painted caricature. I still can’t tell. But the most frustrating thing throughout the film is how certain scenes are clumsily handled. Bahrani presents some great themes for contemplation, dealing with family ties, ambition, and loyalty on more than one level. Yet, when it comes time to deliver the crucial scene, it seems obvious and oversimplified, time after time. Bahrani builds a solid foundation just to throw up another cookie cutter house that looks the same as every other in the neighborhood. There are too many throwaway scenes and moments mixed in, almost lazily so, with the greater potential of the story.
At Any Price comes off as ambition without conviction, which results in a film that looks better on the page and creates better conversation outside of itself than within. It is a disappointment for sure. Ramin Bahrani has a great catalogue, even at just four films, but I am very interested to see where he chooses to go after this. Will he stick with amateurs, or will he continue down the same path of At Any Price, and perhaps hone in on what made his previous work so engaging and powerful. Ramin Bahrani was a must see filmmaker, but after At Any Price I may wait and see before I dash to the theater to see his latest. The pedigree and history is there to get me in the seats, but his direction here to subpar to the point that my confidence in him is certainly shaken a little. Hopefully he finds that magic again, and gives us a film with a heartbeat.
**1/2 – Average