At Any Price is a dark study of the American dream

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      Starring Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron. Rating not available.

      Currently the top seed salesman for seven counties of southwestern Iowa, Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) has given up on his absent older son and is focusing his patriarchal attentions on resentful Dean (a convincing Zac Efron), who dreams of NASCAR racing, or anything else that will take him away from the family farm.

      Quaid plays this sharklike pitchman perfectly, as a 58-year-old teenager still cowering before his own bully of a father (Elvis cohort Red West). Henry is losing business to a tough rival (Clancy Brown) and is getting hassled by the seed company he buys from. And he has been ignoring his dutiful wife (Kim Dickens) in favour of a local floozy (Heather Graham, of course), who is now getting sick of his competitive spirit. “Wow,” she chides during a furtive after-hours encounter, “you really do like to finish first.” Oddly, Henry’s least stunted relationship is with Dean’s underage girlfriend (impressive newcomer Maika Monroe), who is somehow able to hit his honesty buttons.

      At Any Price is the first mainstream(ish) effort from Iranian-born writer-director Ramin Bahrani, whose previous, microbudget productions (Chop Shop, Man Push Cart, and Goodbye Solo) took on tiny stories about displaced people—although these folks are very much of their failure-haunted time and place. Cowritten by Hallie Elizabeth Newton, who appears to know the terrain, the film works best when focused on the day-to-day conflicts and distractions of these proudly confused men and women.

      One bravura sequence finds the contentious participants gathered at Dean’s latest stock-car race, with all loudly declaiming the national anthem just before wheel-spinning destruction begins. Unfortunately, the filmmakers keep introducing melodramatic elements even as the characters begin overarticulating their major themes. Although an admirably dark-hued study of the American dream, curdling circa 2012, this Price is too heavily freighted with Big Meaning to stand on its own merit.

      Watch the trailer for At Any Price.