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Out of Left Fields

At Any Price (2013)

Hooman Bahrani/Sony Pictures Classics

Ramin Bahrani’s last three films — namely “Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop” and “Goodbye Solo” — followed the plights of outcasts such as immigrants and street orphans. While the first two took place in gritty New York City, the latter was set in his native Winston-Salem, N.C. So even though the Iowa cornfield setting in Mr. Bahrani’s latest, “At Any Price,” might come as no surprise, the film’s thoroughly white-bred concerns still mark a huge departure for the filmmaker.

Dennis Quaid plays Henry Whipple, a third-generation family farmer who also dabbles in peddling genetically modified seeds to neighboring farmers and carrying on an extramarital affair with local trollop Meredith (Heather Graham). His chief grievances involve ceding the top-seed-salesman distinction in one county to rival Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) and losing his groomed heir apparent to soul searching in Argentina. Out of desperation, Henry attempts to rope in his stock-car-racing son, Dean (Zac Efron). But things begin to really unravel for Henry when the light of exposure threatens his shady dealings in the seed business.

It’s nice to see a thoughtful filmmaker venturing out of the finite number of Hollywood tropes and zooming in on the ordinary folks of small-town middle America. Problem is, “At Any Price” is so driven by its plot that it fails to connect its characters with moviegoers in any meaningful way. The film begins at a burial service, where a slimy Henry and a begrudged Dean are hounding the bereaved family for its land. The film does little subsequently to instill redeeming qualities in the characters so that we might actually care about them. Mr. Quaid plays the part of Henry with the smarm and gusto of a used-car salesman. Mr. Efron is perpetually gazing into space, as if posing for the requisite hero shots in some Jerry Bruckheimer production. However well-meaning Mr. Bahrani might be, the white-bred rural milieu proves too much of a stretch.


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