Seeds of Dissent – “At Any Price” Review

ZacEfron-AtAnyPrice

If you like NASCAR and corn than boy do I have a film for you. Writer/Director Ramin Bahrani’s latest finds him moving away from small stories and non-actors to see what he can accomplish with big names like Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron and a bigger canvas. The results are rather mixed. Seed intrigue and redneck politics in the heart of corn country doesn’t necessarily scream out cinema. That such a topic is used for obvious observations about ‘Merica isn’t very promising either. My apathy for the set-up notwithstanding, little else is added to engage with other than the film’s own false sense of profundity.

The story is split between father (Dennis Quaid) and son (Zac Efron). Quaid plays Henry Whipple, head of a giant business operation known as 21st century farming. He’s a buffoon of a man. He thinks his charm is a trump card but his cheating ways belie any good will. Quaid is committed in the role. It’s the most I’ve seen him really try in awhile. Unfortunately the character is such a cartoon, radical and extreme in both directions, that Quaid’s best efforts come away feeling like overacting. Efron, playing the black sheep Dean, looks one note by comparison. He doesn’t want anything to do with the family business which is fine since his father has always been content to fawn over his football-star older brother instead. Dean wants to race cars and smolder, and Efron is pretty good pretending to do both. I’m not knocking Efron. I’ve always liked him when he’s playing to his strengths. He’s like Keanu Reeves in that way. The trick is knowing how limited those strengths are.

Conflict arises when Henry’s operation comes under investigation for fraud and when Dean’s bid for glory gets in the way of his romantic life. Multiple times Heather Graham is trotted out as a plot device. She has zero character development. She’s only in the film for sex. I don’t mean sex appeal for the audience but literally sex for the characters. The story is reserved but thin. The wheels dully spin this way until a third act turn tests the title’s thesis but doesn’t logically fit with the rest of the film. It’s on the nose and empty. This might not be that bad except the switch to high stakes doesn’t come with any sympathy. Stakes demand the audience cares about the the consequences. Here, nothing.

The visuals are static. It’s a plain Jane approach to mimic the surroundings but it’s unmemorable. The idea behind the approach means nothing if the result is boring. Later, when the truth behind the investigation comes to light the holes in the story become bigger than a cornfield. I expect this type of complacency from studio product being rewritten to death, but not an auteur-driven indie. Limping to the end the message becomes all to clear. In America, cheaters always prosper but this kind of idea needs to be presented more dramatically. It demands Shakespearean theatrics and not some second-rate soapdish morality tale. It’s a movie that doesn’t realize higher ambitions comes at a higher cost.

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