At Any Price
Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron square off as father and son each struggling with personal crises in a meandering drama set in Iowa, land of corn crops and figure 8 car racing.
"At Any Price" is as unimaginative a title as you might expect for a picture this obvious and heavy-handed. Everything from the broad strokes of the story to the performances verge on the cartoonish... if, that is, the cartoon in question involves underhanded competition among farmers, teen rebellion and its age-old counterparts (namely, fast cars and pretty girls), cougars, and -- there’s no way to say this except just to say it -- hammer attacks.
But I’m getting ahead of the plot, such as it is. In a nutshell: Quaid plays Henry Whipple, a man whose surface is as shiny and fake as a candy shell. Whipple is a farmer and also a salesman of GM seeds; he takes outsized pride in being the biggest salesman in seven counties for the Liberty Seed company. (The corporation’s very name reeks of its oppressive practices.)
Whipple’s sugary, smarmy affect is underscored by his schmaltzy marketing to existing and prospective clients -- he goes so far as to offer minor bribes in the form of a cooler full of candy bars. And the biggest event between spring planting and autumn harvest is his annual "Customer Appreciation Day." The event looms large for Whipple as the summer drags past and his sins and failings start drifting, slowly and inexorably, toward the light of day.
Among the dark deeds his syrupy veneer covers over are an affair with a woman named Meredith (an underused Heather Graham) and an illegal business on the side re-selling GM seed stock to other area farmers. Whipple also shows his shark side by attending the funerals of local landholders in order to tempt grieving family members to sell off their land.
It’s one such transaction that nets Whipple a good price on 200 acres he’s hoping to bestow on his prodigal older son, Grant, who’s off climbing mountains instead of returning home after college as originally planned. Younger son Dean (Efron) has just as little interest in the family business, and just as much contempt for his old man, as does his elder brother, but he sticks with farming for the moment while he waits for his big break in car racing, hoping for an eventual NASCAR career.
The one young person who shows any interest in Whipple’s line of work is Cadence (Maika Monroe), Dean’s pretty girlfriend. But even as Cadence and Whipple start to forge a promising bond, Dean draws further away from them both and begins to gravitate toward his father’s mistress, who practically salivates as she awaits him on the sidelines. Meantime, someone in the community -- a jealous rival, perhaps -- has sicced agents from Liberty Seed onto Whipple, tipping them off about his practice of selling GM seeds.
Most of these plot points are poorly sketched in, and sometimes they are scarcely more than implied. The film is a meandering muddle that lurches from scene to scene in hopes of jump-starting drama rather than letting the salient points direct and shape a dramatic flow of events. As a result, the drama inherent in all of the story’s various strands quickly evaporates and silliness ensues.
The plight of farmers, the predations of big agriculture, and the economic pressure on families in heartland states like Iowa are worthwhile topics for the movies. Intergenerational strife is a perennially rewarding subject for any medium, and the fact that the increasingly glamorous lure of careers built on trivial pastimes and larger-than-life swagger pulls on the country’s young people as never before, tempting them away from meaningful work, is implicit in the art of our age but seldom confronted head on. All of these ingredients are present here, but they lie inert, twitching only when the too-obvious strings of the screenwriter are yanked, rather than jumping up with urgency or inner life. Even as the end credits roll there’s little sense of journey, just a ringing in the ears from so much narrative crashing around. Nothing in this film feels meaningful.