At Any Price 

Unfortunately, his latest effort is something of a stumble. At Any Price, which opens Friday exclusively at AMC Quail Springs Mall 24, 2501 W. Memorial, marks an admirable departure from Bahrani’s comfort zone.

In contrast to his previous works, which featured nonprofessional actors and John Cassavetes-styled improvisation, this offering boasts an accomplished cast (a couple of bona fide stars, even) and a heavily plotted script.

But despite its more conventional storytelling, this melodrama set in the American heartland doesn’t do Bahrani any favors.

Dennis Quaid (What to Expect When You’re Expecting) portrays Henry Whipple, an Iowa farmer and seed salesman of moderate success but not quite enough to satisfy his craving for respectability and a better life. “Why can’t you be happy with what’s right in front of you?” someone posits to Henry, but there’s no getting through to this Willy Loman of the Corn Belt.

Henry hovers between can-do optimism and tattered desperation. He struggles for the approval of his irascible father (Red West, Safe Haven) while weathering the disapproval of his two sons, the youngest of whom, Dean (Zac Efron, The Paperboy), is more interested in pursuing ARCA Racing than the family business.

Henry navigates between a dutiful wife (Kim Dickens, TV’s Treme) and a mistress (Heather Graham, The Hangover). And on top of everything else, the man is in trouble with the manufacturer of the genetically modified seeds that he sells throughout the Hawkeye State.

That’s a lot of story to chew on, and co-screenwriters Bahrani and Hallie Newton craft some meaty characters and unexpected turns along the way. But what is it about farmland dramas that make filmmakers lose all appreciation of subtlety? Maybe there’s something about the open fields and fresh air that just inspires earnestness, considering how the same malady seemed to have infected Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land earlier this year.

While Bahrani’s prior works have been sparing with dialogue and trusting of his audience, At Any Price is a bountiful harvest of talkiness. Here the dialogue is clunky and full of exposition. To some extent, the loquaciousness makes sense given Henry’s penchant for bluster, but at some point, the gab feels more like a crutch.

Not that the cast doesn’t sell it as best they can. Quaid, always a dependable player, creates a compelling and sympathetic portrait of a conflicted man. Efron continues to prove he’s got more acting chops than anyone has a right to expect, and Maika Monroe (next month’s The Bling Ring) shines in a small but memorable role as Dean’s girlfriend and Henry’s would-be student. They help At Any Price remain interesting, if not convincing.

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