A father and son do what they must to play to their ‘all-American’ roles
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Photo: Zac Efron [left] and Dennis Quaid [right] struggle with changing roles in ‘At Any Price’; Rating: R Grade: C-
What do we mean today when we refer to “all-American” ideals? What does it mean to be “all-American” in the new millennium? Auto racing has seemingly snuck into the ranks of heartland sports – possibly supplanting football – and farming – once a rural family venture – is now big business, which, is all-American, right? And then there are the things we do, to cover our tracks, to get and stay ahead.
Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid), the current head of a multi-generational farm and seed business, finds himself in an epic struggle to maintain his place in this “all-American” world, one in serious transition. His son Dean (Zac Efron) wants to race cars and has no interest in one day taking over the family enterprise. Why would he? He sees the crumbling façade that his father constantly puts forth, patched with lies and insincerity, and he imagines himself better than that. But these two have far more in common that is rooted, in the end, in their very blood.
The stakes are high in “At Any Price,” but somehow, in the combination of the setting (rural Iowa) and the milieu (the heartland and the passion for racing), there’s something anachronistic about the film. Dean is just another rebel without a cause. It is his unseen brother who has somehow embraced social consciousness, off working in the third world and then taking time off to climb mountains. He and his efforts are spoken of with longing, but it is the kind of mention that serves to make the speaker feel good and connected to something more grand and global than themselves without having to actually put in the effort.
Dean is stuck in neutral, but threatening, at every turn, to slip into reverse. He’s lost sight of his brother’s vapor trail up ahead, the one that might have guided him away from all this, which means the only model he has is dear old dad.
And Henry, well, he’s an old type too. The oily patriarch with a past of cutting corners, striving to live up to his own father’s expectations, a man with no sense of his own life and passions. It could be argued that this notion is really what it means to be “all-American.” Just doing what’s expected, what’s easy and spouting the pithy platitudes, the rote lines because that’s the only lesson you’ve learned about being an “all-American” man. Heaven help us!
This is philosophy and politics; it is the code of the heartland as told to us in mythic stories on the page, television and the big screen. And we are willing to do whatever it takes to protect this way of life. Henry and Dean do just that. Dean pretends to want to rebel, to go his own way, but the fact that we see him, that he’s present in this story, means that he’s got no choice. Henry’s caught as well, defending the American way, which hasn’t so much changed with the times; instead it is like the novel, marriage, rock n’ roll or any other institution you care to insert here. It is dying, maybe it is already long dead in fact, and like a chicken with its head cut off, it’s just going through the final throes.
Director Ramin Bahrani (who co-writes here with Hallie Elizabeth Newton) turns up the heat and vigorously stirs the melodramatic pot, allowing everything to bubble and spill over, making an “all-American” mess of things that never feels quite as dirty and desperate as it should.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com