Reel Life mini-review: 'At Any Price'
"Am I a happy man?" Iowa farmer Henry Whipple asks his neighbors. "How could I not be?"
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"At Any Price," writer/director Ramin Bahrani's densely layered examination of a farm community under siege by change, offers plenty of reasons for Henry to be unhappy, but he takes great solace in denial.
As Henry, Dennis Quaid creates one of his most accomplished screen performances, a nuanced character hiding disappointment and regrets behind a plastic grin.
Quaid plays Henry as an Iowa farm boy who now owns a big spread and has augmented his crop profits by selling genetically altered seeds to his fellow farmers in an increasingly automated world.
His slick sales manner barely masks the cracks in the foundation of Henry's seemingly all-American life. He's been stepping out on his tolerant wife Irene (Kim Dickens) with a local party girl named Meredith (Heather Graham).
Henry's business has been slipping, especially since neighbor Jim Johnson (Clancy Brown) has been quietly taking clients away from him. Worse, Henry appears to be the target of an investigation for illegally reselling genetically altered seeds.
But his biggest reason for being unhappy is his never-seen older son, the one Henry has placed on a looming pedestal. Henry waits for the day he will return home and take over the family business.
But he never comes. forcing Henry to try to bond with his other boy, teenage rebel Dean (Zac Efron), who hates his slimy dad, resents the demands of a farm and dreams of becoming a race car driver.
Bahrani steeps these characters in pure Iowa farm culture that becomes a virtual character alongside Henry, constantly hammered by his father to keep their farm healthy.
"Expand or die!" an expert tells the farmers. "Get big or get out!"
"At Any Price" is as much about the dehumanization of the American farm lifestyle as it about Henry's mishandling of his own soul.
The story takes an unexpected turn into dark melodrama during the third act, and its refusal to provide a comforting moral resolution proves to be refreshingly bold, if not slightly disturbing.
"At Any Price" opens at the Northbrook Court 14, Century Centre in Chicago and the Evanston CineArts 6. Rated R for language and sexual situations. 104 minutes. ★ ★ ★ ½
How Quaid got the part
When star Dennis Quaid and director/writer Ramin Bahrani came to Chicago to promote their new movie "At Any Price," I asked Bahrani how he decided to cast Quaid as an Iowa farmer.
Short answer: Ellen DeGeneres.
"When the idea of Dennis came up for this role through his agent, I was intrigued. The first thing I did was that I Googled Dennis and this Ellen thing came up."
This "Ellen thing" was a clip from a 2008 DeGeneres show in which she dispatched Quaid to a nearby Starbucks on a prank mission. He wore an earpiece and whatever Ellen told him to say or do, he did.
The bit worked out so well, it became a viral favorite and granted Quaid's now-famous utterance "Dennis Quaid is here!" cult status.
"I watched this," Bahrani told me. "After I saw it, I called his agent. I said I had just watched Dennis on Ellen's show doing this amazing improvisational comedy. And I wanted to cast him after watching that. He seemed so sincere and honest and funny and charming. I just really wanted to work with him!"
"And that's how I got the part!" Quaid affirmed.
You can see Quaid's accidental audition on "Ellen" at bit.ly/18d6lfv.
3 questions for Quaid
Q. How would rank your character Henry Whipple in terms of difficulty to perform?
A. I would say the most difficult because of where I had to go, emotionally and physically.
Q. Why have you stuck with this profession for so long?
A. It's been the fire in my belly. I still have it. I'm interested in the human condition and what makes people tick. I try to understand that. And I try to understand myself, I guess.
Q. What was the best part about working with your director?
A. Ramin was always taking away my acting. All those ticks and other things I use to create a character. He always told me to be still. Be still. Don't act. Just let it happen.
5 questions for Ramin
I asked Ramin Bahrani, director of "Chop Shop" and "Goodbye Solo," how tough it is to obtain funding for a project like "At Any Price."
A. When you go to a studio for funding and you tell them you're making a drama, it's like you told them "I hate your mother!" Then, if you want to make it worse, tell them you're making this drama in a rural setting. That's like you declared World War III. They don't believe anyone wants to see a movie in a rural setting.
A. This was a real challenge. When you try to make movies about human beings, people get angry for some reason.
A. Terror and lack of imagination. There are certain people whose jobs are accounting and they have no imagination. So they limit the world's imagination.
Q. What's to be done?
A. Good films can change that. Good films do change that. People are interested in seeing something new. They want to experience worlds they have not seen before.
Q. What was your experience like shooting "At Any Price" in Illinois and Iowa?
A. With the exception of four or five of the main actors, all the other actors were cast out of Chicago and they are phenomenally good in the movie. I was lucky to come here. The city is full of amazing actors.
$1 summer films? Yes!
Classic Cinemas presents nine weeks of its Wednesday Morning Movie Series for $1 admission, starting June 12 through Aug. 7. Costumed characters will be on the premises to entertain children before the 10 a.m. show time. Reservations will be taken for groups of 15 or more.
On the schedule: "Madagascar" on June 12, "Hotel Transylvania" on June 19, "Ice Age: Continental Drift" on June 26, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days" on July 3, "Rise of the Guardians" on July 10, "Hotel for Dogs" on July 17, "Muppets From Space" on July 24, "Escape From Planet Earth" on July 31 and a surprise movie on Aug. 7. Go to classicmovie.com for info.
Don't call me Shirley!
Join me and James Bond novelist/film historian Raymond Benson when Dann & Raymond's Movie Club presents, "The Stewardess is Flying the Plane: The Great Disaster Movies," 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 9, at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, 500 N. Dunton Ave., Arlington Heights. Free admission. Clips from such disaster classics as "The Towering Inferno," "Earthquake," "Airport" and many more. ahml.info
Like Someone in Love
The After Hours Film Society presents Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's "Like Someone in Love," about an elderly professor who befriends a call girl sent to him by one of his former students. General admission is $9. It starts at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 6, at the Tivoli Theater, 5021 Highland Ave., Downers Grove. afterhoursfilmsociety.com.
• Daily Herald Film Critic Dann Gire's column runs Fridays in Time out!