May 31--The movie industry, seemingly obsessed with only the two coasts and their concrete jungles, has largely ignored the country in between.
Hollywood has particularly avoided the American farmer, arguably the most productive businessman in the new global economy. When this class is pictured at all, cliches abound of struggling, folksy characters who live behind the times but are colorfully eccentric. The shadows of "Tobacco Road" and Walter Brennan remain.
"At Any Price" approaches characters and settings seldom explored in movies.
Henry Whipple has 3,000 acres of Iowa wheat and corn land and, when we meet him, has just acquired 200 more in his determination to "expand or die." He is also the top seed salesman in seven counties, giving out candy to woo customers.
The setting provides a promising beginning, but the movie goes haywire in a mess of illogical and unfocused melodrama. The minute it touches one plotline, it moves to another. The film refuses to risk it all on any of them.
As played by Dennis Quaid, Whipple is something of a buffoon -- a good ol' boy on the make. We are supposed to see him, we eventually realize, as a domineering fiend who has driven his sons away and cheats on his wife. His likability makes it difficult to buy the premise.
His older son has already fled the fields to climb mountains in South America. His remaining son, as played by the buff Zac Efron, wants to become a NASCAR driver rather than run the family business. This, as a central drama, switches things to Hollywood territory. No matter. The younger son isn't any more committed than the film, giving up racing far too easily.
The movie then switches to a moral dilemma as the elder Whipple is suspected of fraud in his seed-selling business. He may lose everything. Quaid puts a damper on this potential drama by approaching it with no more fear than would a child whose toys might be taken away.
The best performance is that of young Maika Monroe as the frisky but tragic girlfriend who is willing to hang around waiting for Efron. Watching her mature is one of the movie's pleasures.
Heather Graham is the local tramp who used to be a cheerleader but now sleeps with both father and son. The most laughable scene is when she and Efron have sex on top of the grain.
The director and co-writer is Winston-Salem, N.C., native Ramin Bahrani, who has mostly made indie movies set in New York. He reportedly researched life among Iowa farm folk for six months before co-writing this script. He should also have researched dramatic focus.
"At Any Price" is almost good in so many areas that one regrets the missed opportunity. It at least acknowledges that there are Americans who don't live in New York or L.A. The definitive drama of the competitive world of modern agriculture, though, remains to be written.
Mal Vincent, 757-446-2347, email@example.com
"AT ANY PRICE"
Cast Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Maika Monroe, Heather Graham
Director Ramin Bahrani
Screenplay Hallie Newton and Ramin Bahrani
MPAA rating R (sexual content and language)
(c)2013 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com
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