'Am I a happy man?" Henry Whipple asks, letting his rhetorical query float into the warm Iowa air. "How could I not be?"
Well, if you've just spent the previous 100 minutes of At Any Price following Dennis Quaid's character - a farmer bent on expanding his acreage and beating out the competition to distribute genetically modified seeds over a wide swath of the Hawkeye State - you know the answer. His wife (a very good Kim Dickens) loves him but can hardly stand living with him. One son has gone off to climb the Andes. The other, Dean (Zac Efron), drives Figure 8 race cars - anything to avoid spending time with his father.
Even Henry's mistress (Heather Graham) is looking elsewhere - like over there at his bare-chested boy, Dean.
Written and directed by Ramin Bahrani - whose smaller indie portraits (Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo) tracked people struggling to make ends meet and make a better life for themselves - At Any Price's title says it all. Henry will stop at nothing, including bargaining for land with the grieving heirs of a neighboring farmer - at the farmer's funeral. Dean, dragged along for the transaction, tries to shake off the shame with beads of sweat running down his neck.
And so the story of Henry Whipple is one of unbridled ambition. Quaid oozes surface charm, but the damage Henry is doing - to his family, friends, and even his farm - makes him hard to like, hard to care about. Bahrani seems less interested in getting at the heart of a man who has sold his soul than he is in showing how the hard facts of modern farming have literally and figuratively changed the landscape. (The Supreme Court just this week voted in favor of the giant agribusiness concern Monsanto in a case involving genetically engineered soybean seeds.)
"Expand or die" is Henry's motto, and At Any Price's all-too-obvious point is that if you expand, part of you will die - the part with the humanity, the empathy, the honest pride.
There are strong performances here - Efron nicely conveys the hurt and rage tearing Dean apart, and Maika Monroe, as his teenage trailer park girlfriend, shows vulnerability and feistiness. And Quaid isn't bad - but he can't find his way beneath his own salesman's slick veneer.
At Any Price **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Ramin Bahrani. With Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Heather Graham, Kim Dickens, and Maika Monroe. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, sex, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Bourse and Rave Motion Pictures/NJ.