‘At Any Price’ doesn’t register


The flowing Iowa cornfields of At Any Price have nothing on the amber waves of Zac Efron's hair.

In At Any Price, Ramin Bahrani plants a sweeping Midwest tale of fathers and sons, fields and seed. His camera floats over cornfields listening to the rustling of the stalks, but the somewhat graceless stabs of grandeur in At Any Price don't register in this uneven but respectably ambitious heartland drama.

Dennis Quaid stars as Henry Whipple, an obsessively driven Iowa seed salesman, a family business he has inherited, along with constant pressure, from his overbearing father (Red West). Efron plays Henry's rebellious, race car-driving son Dean. (In the lengthy history of James Dean odes and references, this may well be the most overt.)

At Any Price: ★★
Director: Ramin Bahrani.
Screenplay: Bahrani and Hallie Elizabeth Newton.
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Playing: (on limited basis) Rave Franklin Park. Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, some grisly images, and language. Running time: 101 min.
  • Dennis Quaid: Henry
  • Zac Efron: Dean
  • Kim Dickens: Irene
  • Heather Graham: 

Efron, a dashing screen presence making interesting choices for a heartthrob actor, attempts a classic American icon: a sweaty, sandy-haired, jean-wearing teenage trouble-maker. But the rebel role doesn't suit Efron: He doesn't have a lick of danger about him.

In any case, this is Quaid's movie. He's not your father's farmer. His thousands of acres aren't pastoral, so much as the backdrop to the hulking modern machinery that drives his small empire, one fed by genetically modified seeds that he aggressively sells to other farmers.

Early in the film, he and a reluctant Dean try to purchase land at a funeral. "Expand or die," is Henry's manta.

But Henry is struggling to grow. A rival seed salesman (an excellent, easy Clancy Brown) is dwarfing his business. He also finds himself under investigation for selling used seeds, the authorities tipped off mysteriously.

His family life isn't much better. He's cheating on his wife, Irene (Kim Dickens), with a younger woman (Heather Graham). His older, more loved son has abandoned him to travel in South America. Dean has no interest in the family business, though his girlfriend (Maika Monroe) begins accompanying him on visits to his customers.

Checking up-to-the-minute corn prices on his phone and glad-handing his customers with awkward folksy cheer, Quaid's Henry Whipple is part businessman, part politician, and all huckster. He papers over the less noble sides of his life with forced smiles and strong-willed evasion, but his eyes give away his desperation. It's a strong if sometimes grating performance in need of less cliche-ridden dialogue.

Only after a flash of violence occurs (an implausibly setup moment in the screenplay co-written by Bahrani and Hallie Elizabeth Newton) does Henry glimpse the price of his relentless capitalism. (And, no, the metaphors aren't subtle.)

There's much to admire about At Any Price, with its seldom-seen portrait of men under financial, moral, and corporate pressures.