Monday, August 26, 2013

I'm way behind #3: At Any Price (Ramin Bahrani)

At Any Price is a disappointing stumble for New York-based, North Carolina-raised filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, especially after the leap forward that was his last film, 2008's Goodbye Solo. I hope it's a temporary aberration and not the first act of a sad decline. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
Bahrani, the first-generation American son of Iranian immigrants, made three features of increasing excellence and the endearingly oddball comedic short Plastic Bag (with Werner Herzog as the voice of a plastic bag and music by a member of Sigur Ros) before the conventional, overheated At Any Price got the better of him, and it's been a pleasure to follow his career over the last eight years. His promising first two films, Man Push Cart, about a former Pakistani pop star struggling to make ends meet in Manhattan with his coffee and bagel cart, and the Italian neo-realist-inspired Chop Shop, about a couple of teenage orphans living above and working in the auto repair shops and scrapyards of the Willets Point area of Queens, made me take notice. They were good films with minor flaws, and they gave me the sense that Bahrani would have some great films ahead of him once he acquired a little age and experience.
The first (hopefully not the last) great Bahrani film appeared in 2008. The filmmaker returned to his home state of North Carolina for Goodbye Solo, a sad, funny, and visually beautiful story about a complex friendship between a Senegalese immigrant cab driver named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) and one of his fares in Winston-Salem, William (Red West, an actor, songwriter, and stuntman most famous for being an integral part of Elvis Presley's Memphis Mafia as a driver, bodyguard, songwriter, and close friend).
While that film ended with a hypnotic but emotionally intense, nearly dialogue-free, formally gorgeous long scene in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains that relied on the composition of images, the landscape, the characters' faces, and meditative silence to tell the end of the story, At Any Price is full of long speeches, melodramatic outbursts, soapbox preaching, and a plot full of soap operatic twists and turns. The story of an Iowa farm family, the Whipples, and their ambitious patriarch Henry (Dennis Quaid), who has turned a small but successful family farm into a large agribusiness machine, the film is a confused mix of puffed-up melodrama and rural slice-of-life. Quaid's ready for his grown sons to enter the family business, but the unseen prodigal son is inexplicably climbing mountains in Argentina (his letters home, read in voice-over, provide some of the film's most ridiculous low points) and the younger son, Dean (Zac Efron) is more interested in breaking into NASCAR, getting into trouble with his redneck friends, taking his smart but younger girlfriend Cadence (the excellent Maika Monroe) for granted, and brooding and sulking in attempts to cultivate his sensitive bad-boy image. Meanwhile, Heather Graham has a thankless, one-note role as a former teen beauty stuck in her Iowa hometown who now sleeps with everyone, including Henry and Dean. Kim Dickens is the suffering, noble wife and mother. Clancy Brown is Henry's agribusiness competition, and Red West (thank god for Red West) is Henry's hard-assed, distant dad. We start at this fever-pitch of melodrama, and rev it up from there.
What happened? Look at how evocative the titles of Bahrani's previous films are. Then look at the flat, generic title of this one. Look at how Bahrani wrote his previous films either alone or with a friend and how he wrote this one with a professional writer. Look at how he swapped his casts of nonprofessionals and offbeat character actors for this cast of Hollywood pros. Look at how his previous films' visual palette gives way to the flat, anonymous look of this movie.
I will give Bahrani some credit. This is a disappointingly conventional film, but the conventions Bahrani follows here are currently unfashionable and unusual. The template for At Any Price is a combination of '50s melodrama and the late '70s/early '80s message movies about factories and farms like Norma Rae, The River, and Silkwood. At Any Price plays like a Joshua Logan period piece like Picnic or Bus Stop without the Technicolor, fun, and charisma or like a message movie with too much message. Still, it's an interesting choice of model in today's world of CGI action and rise-and-fall biopics in Hollywood and the inarticulate, distanced young urban bohemia in indie land. Bahrani gets the rural Midwestern landscape, speech patterns, and social life just right, and Clancy Brown, Red West, and Maika Monroe give better performances than the material deserves. The normally excellent Dennis Quaid (my wife is absolutely right when she says that every Kevin Costner movie would be substantially improved with Quaid in the Costner role) gives an oddly mannered performance, and Zac Efron can't do much with his silly character. I could get into the disastrous home movie montage that opens the film, but I don't have the heart. I'm guardedly optimistic for his next film, but any more like this one, and I may have to bow out. 

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