At Any Price is a movie that desperately wants to be taken seriously, but it fails to leave a mark. Writer/director Ramin Bahrani's fifth feature film is a family drama that combines the desperation of the middle class businessman trying to stay afloat with the hot button issue of genetically modified crops, then throws in a chafing father/son relationship and the everyday disappointments of growing up. Somehow, it's both too much and not enough.
The Whipple family and their problems encapsulates the predicament of Midwestern famers who are driven to desperate measures to stay afloat. This isn't the same homestead that the ancestors of Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) once farmed; it's big biz agriculture, which means Henry's out hustling genetically modified seeds and snatching up land from graveside families of freshly dead farmers. His Glengarry Glen Ross-style exhortations to "Always Be Closing" is emphasized by a sort of sweaty and pathetic performance from Quaid, who manages to be both charming and loathsome.
Naturally, Henry has a favorite son, the athletic and handsome Grant (Patrick Stevens), whom Henry and his wife Irene (Kim Dickens) actually roll out a red carpet for in anticipation of his return. (Surprise: He's more interested in traveling the world than returning to Henry's clutching embrace.) That leaves Dean (Zac Efron) to take over the family business, even though he'd much rather hang out with his sh*tkicker friends and race cars and make out with his hot girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe).
The cinematography is sweeping and beautiful; those amber waves of grain sway hypnotically, lulling us into the sort of complacency that makes it perfectly acceptable to eat food that was tweaked out in a lab. Efron and Quaid are a perfect father and son pair: the Type A aging golden boy versus the fiery-tempered teen who eventually trades his sleeveless T-shirts for a nicely pressed button-up. Of course, dressing like your dad and actually having an affair with his mistress (Heather Graham, in a role as thankless as Dickens') is another. T
The core idea of At Any Price is to put a human face on the changing nature of agriculture, and not just how it affects the food on our shelves but the farmers who've had to change the nature of their livelihood to keep pace. Trying to build a drama around an idea is difficult, especially such a big and political one. The dynamics between Henry and Dean are nothing new or interesting; the only time you really feel the pain of intergenerational disappointment is when Henry meets with his father and you see that it's all a game of trying to live up to a father figure that will never be satisfied.
At Any Price also deals with the shadier nature of the corn business, but it's a dramatic development that lacks the sort of urgency that the title of the movie implies. Although on paper it would seem the stakes are high in At Any Price, documentaries about subsidized farming or GMO crops are far more alarming.
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WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Claire is an attractive CIA operative and Ray is an M16 agent who simultaneously leave their Governmental spy activities in the dust to try and profit from a battle between two rival multi-national corporations both trying to launch a new product that will transform the world and make billions. Their goal is to secure the top-secret formula and get a patent before they are outsmarted. While their respective egomaniacal CEOs engage in an unending battle of wills and one-upmanship Claire and Ray start out conning and playing one another in a clever game of industrial espionage that is even more complicated due to their own long-term romantic relationship.
WHO’S IN IT?
Reuniting Closer co-stars Julia Roberts (as Claire) and Clive Owen (as Ray) turns out to be an inspired idea. They turn out to be the perfect pair oozing movie-star charm and electricity in this elaborate con-game that might have been the kind of thing Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant might have made in the '60s (in fact they did in Charade). Roberts with that infamous hairstyle back the way we like it and Owen looking great in sunglasses prove they have what it takes to navigate us through this ultra-complex plot in which no one is sure who they can trust at any given moment. They play it all in high style and the wit just flows as the story skirts back and forth during the period of five years. The supporting cast is well-chosen with juicy roles for Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti (out of their John Adams duds) as the two CEOs going for each other’s throats. Giamatti who sometimes has a tendency to overdo it is especially slimy here and great fun to watch.
Big-star studio movies today rarely take risks and often talk down to the audience but in Duplicity writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has crafted a complicated con-comedy that requires complete attention at all times just to keep up with the dense plot’s twists and turns. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a New York Times crossword puzzle and Gilroy and his top-drawer production team deliver a glossy beautiful-looking film that’s easy on the eyes hitting locations from Dubai to Rome to New York City.
Like any good puzzle it sometimes can be frustrating putting it all together and Gilroy’s habit of taking us back in time and then inching forward gets a little confusing even with the on-screen chyron pointing out where we are at any given moment. Stick with it though and you will be well-rewarded.
A scene near the end where the formula must be found scanned and faxed in a matter of minutes is sweat-inducing edge-of-your-seat moviemaking and it provides the ultimate opportunity for Roberts and Owen to take the “con” to the next level. Another where Roberts uses a thong to try and trick Owen into admitting an affair he never had is also priceless and gets right to the heart of the game-playing.
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN ...
Never. Stock up during the coming attractions. If you miss a moment of this entertaining romp you might never figure it all out.