The Price is Wrong

Zac Efron (Dean). Photo by Matt Dinerstein, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

At Any Price is boring, but that doesn’t count against it quite as much as you might think. Partway through its running time, the film’s affably conventional melodrama somehow achieves a symbiotic sort of balance with its bleak, un-ironic tale of the dehumanizing “American Dream.” Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, and Heather Graham are the cast of a dumb studio tearjerker, not an indie flick – or not a good one, anyway. But the film’s close resemblance to a bond-with-the-son-and-save-the-farm cliché, coupled with its divergent agenda, makes it curiosly arresting.

The film opens with idyllic Iowa farm footage, scratchy 8mm shots charting the childhood of two rough-and-tumble farmboys as they grow from boys to men, complete with muscle cars, football trophies, and poses with grinning Dad and loving Mom. It’s so perfectly We’re Number One that it seems like a bad joke. Of course, it is, and the next hour and fourty minutes are the desanctifying, machismo-draining, painful degradation that serves as the punchline.

Maybe the opening images are meant as genuinely Edenic; maybe they are meant as merely idealized. It doesn’t really matter. They’re to be dragged through the cornfield mud, though co-writer/director Ramin Bahrani does so with a quiet reserve. The film’s satire may lean towards Juvenalian, but it seems more like a plea than an outright condemnation: something is wrong in the United States, and we are suffering for it.

The end of the 8mm footage sends us immediately into the family’s reality. A stupidly cheerful Quaid forces his reticent son, Efron, out of the car to attend a funeral for someone they never knew, in order to buy the man’s land from his surviving relatives. Quaid’s all about the sale, and his partly-sincere, dopey country wholesomeness makes his Glengarry Glen Ross patter all the more pathetic. His son is embarrassed, but just wants to get away and strike it big in his racing career; it’s left to us to wince when Quaid, after being run off the funeral plot, is then sold the land by its bereaved inheritors because they can’t take the hassle of coming back to Iowa.

The film follows its two U.S. icons – the grinning farmer dad and the plainspoken race car driver – through their usual melodramatic twists and turns. There’s an affair or two in there, some fistfights, a sneering rival family, and a shot in a big race. But surprises start to emerge as we realize that these tropes aren’t Bahrani’s final goal. With one story, Bahrani illustrates the pain of impossible ideals; with the other he illustrates the pain of possible ones.

There’s an overwhelming motif, too, of past mistakes, the sense that everything in the film is built on sin. Whether this is allegorical U.S. guilt over the country’s past, a critique of capitalism, simply good storytelling, or a combination thereof, I can’t quite say.

At Any Price is partially about GMOs, and the topic simultaneously yields some of the film’s worst lines (“They didn’t just copyright video, they copyrighted life!”) and perfectly frames the conflict. Pure and simple, the film is about the harmful myths of the “American Dream” and the effects they have both externally and internally – not just with how neo-liberal ideology relates to crops and agriculture, but with the way we currently think about competition, about success, and about relationships (one of the film’s great delights is the senseless dullness of a certain sex scene). But it avoids simplicity in its analysis, it avoids absolutes, and it avoids political polarization.

The reception of At Any Price will be an interesting cultural thermometer. Those that take it as a straightforward drama will doubtless find it anemic; those that take it as satire may well hate it all the same. With either view, it’s not a pleasant film, but as an expression of dissatisfaction with prevailing ideologies, it is I think a worthwhile addition to a very current discussion.

If nothing else, it undoubtedly features the best national anthem sequence since Borat.