At Any Price uncovers the cutthroat competition, shady dealings, and straight-up corruption in the ruthless world of…agriculture? Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo) and first-time scripter Hallie Elizabeth Newton present an original story, albeit one that quickly plummets from novelty to melodrama, and not very believable melodrama at that. Though it may make you wonder what transpired to help usher your CSA from seeds to dinner.
Dennis Quaid, usually ol’ reliable, plays Henry Whipple, an Iowa farmer and family man who wants nothing more than for his two sons, Grant (Patrick Stevens) and Dean (Zac Efron), to be involved with the business that he inherited from his own father. Right from the beginning, though, Quaid grates. His Henry alternates between cheeseball (always spouting “life lessons” that are just clichés) and simpleton, with a wide, goofy grin that makes him look apple-cheeked and a little weird. Henry Whipple, rural bumpkin, yes. Henry Whipple, strategic mastermind, no. (Also: lover of Heather Graham? Please.)
But that’s what the script says he is, and he tries to use his off-putting “charm” to win back old customers and grab new land; to do the latter, he crashes the funeral of a fellow farmer and gives the family his card along with his condolences. Dean’s with him and is naturally mortified—he wants no part of this virtual ambulance-chasing. In fact, Dean wants nothing to do with the farm. His goal is to become a professional racecar driver. Henry mocks the dream and tells Dean he’ll never make it. Meanwhile, Henry puts Grant on a pedestal, certain that he wants to follow in Dad’s footsteps even though Grant just went off to college. Henry and his wife (Kim Dickens) literally roll out a red carpet when they expect Grant home during a break. And they wait.
You may as well direct your eyes toward the ceiling for the rest of the film. There’s triumph—believable—and a single loss that drives a character so over the edge his entire personality changes and he accidentally murders someone. There’s practically a statutory rape, and a girlfriend who of course happens to be in the vicinity when it happens. There’s a suicide attempt. Dad hates Dean’s chosen career path—no, wait, he loves it! Dean hates the farm—no, wait, he loves it! Then another character does a 180, suddenly becoming good when he used to be bad.
It’d be tough to shoehorn in any more plot turns. This soap opera is jammed into the second half of At Any Price, with Efron—seriously—looking like the most professional of the lead actors, even if the story has Dean do ridiculous, unrealistic things. Then again, maybe that’s just your typical life on the farm.