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.