The flowing Iowa cornfields of “At Any Price” have nothing on the amber waves of Zac Efron’s hair.
In “At Any Price,” Ramin Bahrani plants a sweeping Midwest tale of fathers and sons, fields and seed. His camera floats over cornfields listening to the rustling of the stalks, but the somewhat graceless stabs of grandeur in “At Any Price” don’t register in this uneven but respectably ambitious heartland drama.
Dennis Quaid stars as Henry Whipple, an obsessively driven Iowa seed salesman, a family business he has inherited, along with constant pressure, from his overbearing father (Red West). Efron plays Henry’s rebellious, race car-driving son Dean. (In the lengthy history of James Dean odes and references, this may well be the most overt.)
Efron, a dashing screen presence making interesting choices for a heartthrob actor, attempts a classic American icon: a sweaty, sandy-haired, jean-wearing teenage trouble-maker. But the rebel role doesn’t suit Efron: He doesn’t have a lick of danger about him.
In any case, this is Quaid’s movie. He’s not your father’s farmer. His thousands of acres aren’t pastoral, so much as the backdrop to the hulking modern machinery that drives his small empire, one fed by genetically modified seeds that he aggressively sells to other farmers.
Early in the film, he and a reluctant Dean try to purchase land at a funeral. “Expand or die,” is Henry’s manta.
But Henry is struggling to grow. A rival seed salesman (an excellent, easy Clancy Brown) is dwarfing his business. He also finds himself under investigation for selling used seeds, the authorities tipped off mysteriously.
His family life isn’t much better. He’s cheating on his wife Irene (Kim Dickens) with a younger woman (Heather Graham). His older, more loved son has abandoned him to travel in South America. Dean has no interest in the family business, though his girlfriend (Maika Monroe) begins accompanying him on visits to his customers.
Checking up-to-the-minute corn prices on his phone and glad-handing his customers with awkward folksy cheer, Quaid’s Henry Whipple is part businessman, part politician and all huckster. He papers over the less noble sides of his life with forced smiles and strong-willed evasion, but his eyes give away his desperation. It’s a strong if sometimes grating performance in need of less cliche-ridden dialogue.
Only after a flash of violence occurs (an implausibly setup moment in the screenplay co-written by Bahrani and Hallie Elizabeth Newton) does Henry glimpses the price of his relentless capitalism. (And, no, the metaphors aren’t subtle.)
There’s much to admire about “At Any Price,” with its seldom-seen portrait of men under financial, moral and corporate pressures. It can be applauded, too, for upending quaint notions of farm life in favor of a more realistic depiction of the modern agricultural industry.
But Bahrani, in his largest scale film yet and his first effort with big-name stars, seems to be wrestling with the balance of a more sizable production. His earlier indie films, like the simple but memorable “Man Push Car” (about the life of a Pakistani food cart seller in New York), show a depth of empathy.
When “At Any Price” draws to a crescendo, Dickon Hinchliffe’s mournful score heavy-handedly signals the disturbing truths behind its characters’ Midwest smiles and bright pastures. But the film hasn’t quite earned the grim resonance it seeks. The harvest, begun with obviously good intentions, has been spoiled.
“At Any Price,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, some grisly images, and language. Running time: 101 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definition for R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.