As the Venice slate slowly starts ramping up, the critical reactions we have received in the meantime have largely been a conflicted thing. It started with a mildly despondent reaction to Mira Nair's "The Reluctant Fundamentalist", and continues today with a more positivity tinted reaction to a film that has already been met with "boo"s. That happens to be Ramin Bahrani's heavily American "At Any Price", starring an unlikely cast of Zac Efron, Dennis Quaid, and Heather Graham. When a festival feature is met with vocal or physical negativity, such as those who felt the need to leave the "Alps" screening last year, I rarely go in the other direction. The reviews too haven't given as much reason to avoid as reason to adjust expectations, which were malleable in the first place.
Justin Chang (Variety): "The fastidiousness of this sociological inquiry is undeniably impressive, even if it sometimes puts a stranglehold on spontaneity, as in the emergence of a dark third-act twist. The way Bahrani deals with the fallout is at once vaguely unsatisfying and admirably bold in its lack of moral resolution, casting a long shadow of deceit and injustice over the sun-dappled pastoral imagery that closes the picture. Yet the film's truer, more generous heart may rest in an earlier sequence of the characters singing the National Anthem together, their off-key voices isolated one by one, an authentic expression of faith in a community's ability to weather any storm."
Guy Lodge (In Contention): "The performances are on much the same page. Efron does some solid, creditably unlikeable work here as the impetuous Dean, and Dickens brilliantly elevates her tersely written role as his careworn mother, socking the equivalent of the Laura Linney moment as the film's finale turns eerily "Mystic River" in tone. But it's an ideally-cast Quaid, whose performance could well net some awards attention if pitched right by Sony Pictures Classics, who has to shoulder the bulk of the film's moral burden, as he's gradually forced out of his rehearsed, sitcommy "American everyman" patter and into a subdued admission of an actual everyman's shortfall between self-worth and self-doubt. There is, to requote a vexed Italian critic with a slightly different emphasis, a lot of America in this film."
David Rooney (Hollywood Reporter): "The racetrack scenes recall the grit and excitement of Jonathan Kaplan’s underappreciated 1983 gem Heart Like a Wheel. But the chief dramatic engine is less Dean’s thwarted ambitions than the troubles that arise when Henry’s seed-sales operation is placed under investigation. This causes Dean to intervene with grave consequences, forcing the family to wrestle with challenging moral issues. While the drama comes up a little short in emotional payoff, this is a thoughtful, nuanced film that vividly evokes life in a Midwestern community in which business often trumps friendship. It offers a rueful snapshot of the changing face of a quintessential element of American life."