Susan Granger’s review of “At Any Price” (Sony Pictures Classics)
In the competitive world of modern, high-tech agriculture, ambitious, third-generation farmer Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is in a bind. With his elder son off climbing mountains in South America, he wants his younger son Dean (Zac Efron) to help grow the family’s 3,700-acre, Iowa seed-farming empire.
Repeating the capitalist mantra, “Expand or die,” Henry routinely visits local funeral parlors and cemeteries, ruthlessly determined to buy the deceased’s land at bargain prices from grieving children who are uninterested in pursuing their parents’ hardscrabble life. But sullen, rebellious Dean hopes to become a professional stock car driver, racing on the NASCAR circuit. Yet when an accident sidelines Dean’s dreams and a Liberty Seed investigation into Whipple’s unscrupulous practice of cleaning and re-selling patented seeds is exposed, father and son are pushed into an unexpected crisis that threatens the future of their business.
After “Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop,” and “Goodbye Solo,” this is the fourth film that New York-based, Iranian-American writer/director Ramin Bahrani has made about an individual’s attempts to achieve the American Dream. Bahrani collaborated with Hallie Elizabeth Newton on this cliché-riddled, contrived and not-entirely-credible script, developing not only the two primary characters but also subsidiary ones, including Whipple’s neighbor and hated rival, Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) and his son (Ben Marten), Whipple’s hard-working wife Irene (Kim Dickens), his unyielding father (Red West), along with son Dean’s savvy girl-friend Cadence Farrow (Maika Monroe) and the town’s restless ‘hotie,’ Meredith Crown (Heather Graham). Indeed, Bahrani subtly evokes memories of Willy and Biff Loman in Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman”
While there are not-so-subtle references to the debates surrounding the ownership of genetically modified seeds developed by corporations like Monsanto, oddly enough, there’s no mention of either global warming or the persistent drought that currently threatens the troubled Midwestern heartland.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “At Any Price” is a stressed, struggling 6, exploring the moral and social consequences of corruption and the high-stakes economic pressures in the contemporary business world.