“At Any Price” takes director from urban immigrants to Midwestern farmers
Bahrani's brilliant successes with little-known casts don't translate to a bigger film with Hollywood veterans.
Henry Whipple is a third generation corn farmer making his way through the maze of banks, seed companies and neighbors as he tries to be a father to his two sons. The favorite son, Grant, has gone off to find his way in the world of adventure and has rejected the family business. The other, Dean, is the James Dean of the family, the outcast, the hothead romantic. He just wants to drive fast cars and be famous for it, and he becomes so in the limited Middle American dirt-track-figure-eight-crash-car way.
The relationship between Henry and Dean is the heart of the story. The heart is easy to find because it is a familiar motif in our cinematic literature. But it is a hard one to follow and care about.
False starts in several directions make the narrative hard to track. Dean’s career as a NASCAR driver goes nowhere for reasons that also disappear. The narrative about cleaning and selling seeds illegally gets a little gloss but it also turns to vapor.
The seed story is interesting because it as been in the headlines lately, as Monsanto has sued farmers for doing the same thing. Apparently Monsanto, or in the film’s case, Liberty Seed Company, owns the rights to every genetically modified and organized seed that they sell you and to the generations of seeds that come after. You can’t grow corn unless it comes from a seed that Monsanto sells you and they’ll sell you new seeds every year, year after year. Good business for them, handcuffs for the farmer.
Henry has a rambunctious affair with a woman in town and the woman then seduces Dean. Henry’s wife knows about it and looks the other way. Dean’s girlfriend finds out about it and walks away from him. All of these stories have potential but they drift away to turn the focus to attempts to bring father and the son together. In the great tradition of American movies, violence finally binds them and propels the family farming tradition into the future.
Dennis Quaid plays Henry Whipple with just enough extra character work to make Henry comic. Henry is a funny, sad man, working as hard as he can to put a happy face on everything. He is a salesman for Liberty Seed Company as well as a small farmer and he plays the edges of legality as closely as he can. He plays most scenes as if he were running for mayor. Zak Efron’s Dean is about as predictable as can be — right down to the name’s link to James Dean, the original bad son in East of Eden and everything else Dean did in his short career. Bahrani tries to turn the stereotype inside out, but Efron just doesn’t have the depth yet to do that. Quaid is trying but he doesn’t get much help from his director.
In the past, Bahrani has worked with actors not familiar in the mainstream. He has managed to get very moving, dynamic performances out of them and he has captured and presented them in simple, direct ways. Now he is working with a variety of mainstream actors, from Quaid to Efron to Heather Graham and Kim Dickens, all good actors who bring strong choices and come to work. I mean they come to work to work.
The director’s job is to bring them all into the same room, get them working in the same key, and make his choices – camera choices, editing choices, music choices – to present them in the way that tells the story in the most accessible way. He hasn’t been able to balance the ensemble of actors and he is frames and cuts in the most matter-of-fact, plain, almost television-movie style. He has been so good before, so focused, that I almost feel as though he is deliberately disrespecting the high profile cast and the mainstream backers of the film.
I hope Bahrani returns to the urban streets and the outcasts with which and with whom he has such kinship. He is a wonderful film maker, but At Any Price fails.
At Any Price opens May 24 exclusively at the Oriental Theater on Farwell.