‘At Any Price’
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Stars: Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron
3 (out of 5) Globes
If there is anyone in American cinema today more consciously carrying the torch of classic European neo-realist cinema, it’s Ramin Bahrani. “Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop” and “Goodbye Solo” are all perceptive looks at the working class that don’t simply honor their struggle but respect them enough to reveal their flaws. Perhaps it’s inevitable that every director winds up with an A-list cast, even if one of those names is Zac Efron. And Bahrani — who has classically leaned towards non-pros, or at least underknowns — is apparently no exception. “At Any Price” is a bit of Frankenstein monster, if not in the ways you would think.
Dennis Quaid plays Henry Whipple, a small town Illinois seed farmer first seen lecturing his layabout son Dean (Efron) on the finer points of shamelessly manipulating people by using a big grin and a forced positive attitude. A third generation business owner, he keeps things going with genetically altered seeds and a shortage of ethics, and expects his two sons to carry on the family name. But one is off traipsing about Argentina, while Dean seems uninterested in anything, save striking back at dad.
Where Bahrani’s previous films were tightly focused, the bigger “Price” — which also makes room for Heather Graham as an evil Midwestern version of a temptress, who seduces both father and son — is more diffuse. It’s rarely clear if it’s being driven by character, narrative or a savage satire on today’s economy. When it takes a turn for a morality tale in the eleventh hour, the clean-up can’t help but feel rushed and semi-earned.
But there’s so much goodness here. Quaid, as a kind of grifter who’s been “on” so long he’s even fooled himself, hasn’t been this energized in ages. And Bahrani stretches his stuff. In keeping with the neo-realist aesthetic, his movies have been filmed with a handheld as a shortcut to realism. His work here is more slick (read: the camera is on a tripod). It often doesn’t feel like him, except that the concerns are roughly the same. (Henry could be the spiritual father to the scrappy kid laborer in “Chop Shop.”) The most shocking parts come during scenes showing Dean’s sudden jones for stock car driving. The racing sequences are bizarrely kinetic, with Bahrani shedding his Roberto Rossellini vibe for a not terrible approximation of John Frankenheimer. One benefit of a messy production, even a slightly messy one like this, is there are times when it seems anything could happen. For “At Any Price” that’s often a good thing.