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Originally published Thursday, May 16, 2013 at 3:03 PM

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‘At Any Price’: a farm-family melodrama

A review of “At Any Price,” which Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald calls “an oddly balanced agricultural melodrama.”

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 2 stars

‘At Any Price,’ with Dennis Quaid, Zac Efron, Kim Dickens, Heather Graham, Clancy Brown, Chelcie Ross, Red West. Directed by Ramin Bahrani, from a screenplay by Bahrani and Hallie Elizabeth Newton. 105 minutes. Rated R for sexual content including a strong graphic image and for language. Sundance, Pacific Place.

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There’s an interesting story at the heart of “At Any Price,” an oddly unbalanced agricultural melodrama from director Ramin Bahrani. It’s the tale of a three-generation farming family in contemporary Iowa, presiding over thousands of acres in corn country — and facing the changes in agribusiness that affect their livelihood.

“Expand or Die” is the slogan, and farmer Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) is determined to go with the first option, attending funerals where he glad-hands the bereaved and pretends he’s doing them a favor by buying their land. But he’s dismayed that his older son lives far from home, and his younger son Dean (Zac Efron), a race-car enthusiast, shows little interest in the family legacy. Soon we see cracks in Henry’s folksy exterior: He’s cheating on his wife, his predatory land-buying is making enemies, and he’s under investigation for other shady business practices.

Quaid, all rolling eyes and mile-wide grins (and occasional weird sentence structure — “Worry not, for approval I shall get”), plays Henry as a man wound so tight he just might explode at any moment; it’s a strangely over-the-top performance, and one all the more noteworthy next to Efron’s low-key Dean. The tone of “At Any Price,” in general, feels off: “It’s in your blood,” Henry tells Dean, speaking of the land, and it sounds like a line in a movie; as do the many scenes in which characters explain agricultural practices to each other, for the audience’s benefit.

Somewhere in here, buried not too deep, is a better movie; underneath the familiar father-son troubles and the waving corn is a potentially moving story of how a way of life has changed. (One of the most interesting scenes involves Henry’s father, played by Red West, who doesn’t in any way romanticize life on a farm in the old days.) Written and played with a little more subtlety, Henry and his contradictions could have been fascinating; as it is, “At Any Price” keeps us at a distance, gazing at characters who never quite come to life.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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