NOW PLAYING AT ART THEATRE: ‘At Any Price’

Zac-Efron-At-Any-Price-Movie-PosterHenry Whipple, a third-generation Iowa farmer, is the #1 seller of Liberty Seeds in seven counties. Well, make that six, because his main rival has just outmaneuvered him for Decatur. And since in the world of modern agriculture it’s “expand or die,” Henry’s feeling the pressure.

Problem is, we don’t much care, because Henry (Dennis Quaid) is a selfish, shallow, and smarmy. We also don’t care about son Dean’s (Zac Efron) desire not to end up as the fourth generation running Whipple & Sons. He wants to race cars. But because the apple has not fallen far from the tree, we’re not invested in his success.

The main problem with At Any Price may be that there isn’t a single character with whom we really sympathize, because ultimately they’re just not good people. “I love you,” Henry’s wife Irene (Kim Dickens) tells her philandering husband at one point. “But you make me feel like an idiot every day for doing it.” It’s not just a feeling, honey: you are an idiot (and worse).

Director and co-writer Ramin Bahrani got some well-deserved kudos in 2005 for Man Push Cart, and then did even better with his follow-up, Chop Shop. In those films his cinema verité stylings and employment of Aristotle’s dramatic unities (time, place, action) brought us right into the gritty urban realities of people with whom we could resonate. But with At Any Price he’s taken a turn for the Hollywood, and it’s a bad move. Gone is the efficient handheld camera work, the thoughtful space in the editing, the spareness. Bahrani was a success at exploiting his limiations; with fewer, he’s far less creative.

The writing seems more heavily scripted than Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, heavy and flat. Moreover, the characters here are so one-dimensional that the actors—famous pros, rather than the unknowns and amateurs who helped with the verisimilitude in the other two films—don’t get to do much. Sure, we see that behind the façade Henry is struggling, but Bahrani’s basically having Quaid ham it up (and let’s be honest: Quaid is no De Niro), as if otherwise the audience won’t know that he’s having a tough time of things. But at least Quaid gets to do something. Heather Graham, playing Quaid’s secretary or something, seems to have been cast solely to add star power. And yeah, she’s lovelier than ever. But why not save some cash and cast a model with no acting experience? Because there’s nothing to this role.

Although At Any Price is not particularly well made, somewhere supporting the contrived plot there does seem to be an idea at work. While the name “Monsanto” is never spoken, a bit of heavy-handed exposition beings us into the realm of GMO seeds—the patenting of life, the corporate prohibitions against replanting, etc. At Any Price asks the question—literally asks it—whether life should be about more than business, more than expanding for the sake of expansion, acquiring simply because you can. And so Bahrani may not want us to sympathize with any of these characters, because they personify a corporate cupidity he may be railing against.

I’m not sure the choice pays off aesthetically, but it’s not the least interesting way to make a point. Imagine Monsanto and its ilk were a people. At Any Price helps a bit, heavy-handed title and all.

At Any Price is now playing at the Art Theatre of Long Beach (2025 E. 4th Street, LB 90804). For info on show times call 562.438.5435 or visit arttheatrelongbeach.com.

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