'At Any Price': Not worth the price
By Kate Erbland, Special to MSN Movies
Set against the amber waves of grain (and the solid, green stalks of corn) of Iowa's surprisingly beautiful farmland, filmmaker Ramin Bahrani attempts to weave a tale about the bonds of family, the price of the American dream, and the cost of unabated greed with his surprisingly ineffective and inept "At Any Price." A classic tale of fathers and sons, the film centers on the fortunes of the Whipple family, particularly dad Henry (Dennis Quaid) and his second son, Dean (Zac Efron). Henry, a third-generation farmer and star seed salesman, can't quite understand why reckless Dean refuses to quit driving his precious racecar and join up with the family business. As the film reveals Henry's questionable business (and personal) ethics, it becomes blatantly obvious why Dean resists becoming like his dad, though he may end up being the worse Whipple by the time "At Any Price" finally concludes.
Despite a promising start, "At Any Price" almost immediately devolves into uninspired and uninteresting cliché. The film's dialogue is weighed down with laughably leaden exposition that is both heavy-handed and just plain hammy. Bahrani and Hallie Elizabeth Newton's script seems to be entirely concerned with ensuring that every conversation is riddled with large chunks of information that could be much more effectively delivered by way of actual plot movements and genuine character development. It's a film entirely about telling, not showing, a decision that dilutes its potential emotional impact at almost every turn. Using dialogue expressly to convey important information also robs "At Any Price" of the opportunity to use character conversations to illuminate anything resembling nuance or realism, and yet the film is still rife with illogical character jumps that stick out unforgivably. Bahrani previously penned his other directorial outings, including "Goodbye Solo" and "Chop Shop," with far better results, so it's worth questioning just how much blame rests on co-writer Newton, a first-time scribe who doesn't have another cinematic credit to her name.
To his credit, Bahrani's film is populated by proven actors (Quaid and Efron, at the very least, have a believable and interesting chemistry), and yet the filmmaker seems to have directed the majority of them to some of their worst performances of their various careers (save for Kim Dickens, who is the only star who emerges from the film without falling into flat line-delivery or over-the-top emotional outbursts). "At Any Price" is clearly meant to serve as some sort of indictment against both the American dream and American greed, but such high-minded ideals simply cannot shine through in a film this hammy, unrefined, and obvious.
Kate Erbland is a contributing writer for MSN Movies, a critic for Boxoffice Magazine, and an Associate Editor for Film School Rejects. She has been writing about movies since 2008, but has been thinking about movies for far longer. She lives in Los Angeles.