North Carolina hasn’t produced so many directors that we can afford to blow any of them off – especially when their work has been as fresh and original as Ramin Bahrani’s. (His “Goodbye Solo,” about an African cab driver trying to acclimatize himself to life in Winston-Salem, made my top 10 list in 2008.)
So I went into “At Any Price” with hopes high. The beginning swiftly and silently told the history of a family farm through a montage. The audacious ending, though unjustified by what had come before, was clearly something mainstream Hollywood would not have tolerated.
Yet the 90 minutes in between, a mass of symbols and improbabilities so great they provoke outright laughter, made me wonder whether aliens stole Bahrani’s brain.
Consider the main half-dozen stereotypes:
1) Iowa farmer and seed salesman Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), desperate to hang on to the family property, resorts to underhanded business methods. He’s despised for other reasons by
2) Younger son Dean (Zac Efron), who wants to drive race cars and get out of his dead-end town, despite the steadying influence of
3) Cadence (Maika Monroe), the girlfriend who’s full of good advice and hates
4) Meredith (Heather Graham), who was head cheerleader when Henry was football captain and still sleeps with him in total disregard of
5) Irene (Kim Dickens), Henry’s tight-lipped, stalwart and always supportive wife, who in turn deeply resents
6) Cliff Whipple (Red West), the dictatorial patriarch who has ruined Henry by withholding love.
Yes, this is a universe in which the 59-year-old Quaid and the 43-year-old Graham supposedly graduated from high school together. By the time Dean punishes his father by having sex with Meredith on top of the seed his dad is about to plant, I had given up and called the Cliché Patrol.
Bahrani, a Winston-Salem native, has set his previous three feature films where he has lived: “Chop Shop” and “Man Push Cart” take place in New York, “Solo” (with West in a crucial role) in Winston.
Maybe the writer-director found himself adrift in the corn fields: On the evidence of this movie, he’d have been the only person in Iowa who wasn’t a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I understand why he’d want to study people who are foreign to him, but he reduced them all to insignificance.
Neither Efron nor Quaid show the emotional depth needed to make us care about such irritating characters; Efron scowls incessantly, while Quaid confronts disaster with the visage of a 6-year-old who’s just been told he won’t get a pony for Christmas. Except for Monroe, who’s quietly memorable, the women barely exist.
Almost inexplicably, the director was nominated for the Golden Lion at the 2012 Venice Film Festival. I say “almost,” because judges at European festivals are suckers for any film that depicts Americans as lawless, greedy, depressed, oversexed and amoral. Narrative quality doesn’t seem to be a factor.