AT ANY PRICE
directed by Ramin Bahrani
by Bill Chambers The great Pete Dexter writes tersely about criminal perversity in the southern United States; the problem in adapting him to the cinema is that without his hardboiled prose, which lends everything he writes the whiff of reportage (a newspaperman originally, he turned to novels after drug dealers beat him nearly to death over one of his columns), the psychosexual situations he describes threaten to collapse into camp. Because of this, Dexter and Precious/Shadowboxer auteur Lee Daniels sounded like a match made in Hell to me, but the blunt force of Daniels's shamelessness proves strangely compatible with Dexter's writing in The Paperboy, based on the latter's 1995 best-seller. If only he could direct! Daniels is like a less bourgeois Henry Jaglom, cutting between a panoply of indifferently-composed shots like a frog on a griddle with little feeling for either spatial or character dynamics.
The suddenly-dependable Matthew McConaughey leads an eclectic B+-list cast as Ward, a MIAMI TIMES reporter returned to his hometown of Lately with black partner Yardley (David Oyelowo) in tow. The year is 1969, and they're there to cover the impending execution of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack, playing Con Air co-star Nicolas Cage), bringing them into orbit with Charlotte (Nicole Kidman, fighting to suppress her native intelligence), Van Wetter's new penpal with a Death Row jones. For all those viable candidates, the true protagonist is Ward's little brother, Jack (Zac Efron), whom Ward enlists to both babysit Charlotte and serve as a buffer in interactions with their father and soon-to-be stepmother (Scott Glenn and Nealla Gordon). The movie's so choppily configured that although a lot of screentime is devoted to Jack nursing the blue balls he gets from his bayou Mrs. Robinson, or struggling to reconcile his kneejerk racism with the country's burgeoning social conscience, it isn't clear that he's the Final Girl until he's the Final Girl. Scene after scene in The Paperboy is peculiarly weightless, feeling neither narratively significant nor subjectively grounded, and the effect is so wearying that the sight of Efron receiving a golden shower from Kidman --allegedly for real, though the fetish crowd won't find it graphic enough--is more defibrillator than highlight.
Efron is adequate in the kind of role that would've been filled by Robby Benson or Leif Garrett once upon a time--it helps that he's a bit of a wannabe onscreen as well as off, excusing his adolescent emoting as acting. He's certainly more palatable in The Paperboy than he is in Ramin Bahrani's At Any Price, where he strives for James Dean cool but barely meets the pitiful standards set by Jared Leto on "My So-Called Life". The new soap opera from America's least exciting regional filmmaker, At Any Price stars Dennis Quaid as Henry Whipple, a third-generation corn- grower and seller stuck with passing the baton to youngest son Dean (guess who) after his eldest flies the coop. But pouty Dean has designs on being a NASCAR driver, and Henry's shady business dealings--he poaches land from dead farmers and illegally resells genetically-modified seeds, for starters--are threatening to tarnish the family name. Tragedy ensues.
Couched in dubious performances--Quaid's been rightly chided for channelling Jack Nicholson, of all people--and banal ironies are some legitimately interesting lessons in the corn industry, including a nice speech equating the redistribution of seeds with DVD piracy. And the odd detail sings, like Henry offering his clientele candy bars from a cooler as he makes his rounds. But when head cheerleader turned cougar Meredith (Heather Graham, just dreadful) grabs Dean's downward-spiralling girlfriend (Maika Monroe) and states the obvious--"I was you twenty years ago!" (I'm only lightly paraphrasing)--Bahrani's insecurity becomes palpable. There's scarcely any subtext that doesn't percolate into exposition in At Any Price, while a late-film monologue from Henry's wife Irene (Kim Dickens, gorgeous) is recycled whole cloth from Mystic River--and no less comically inexplicable here, given Irene's essential unknowability up to this point. As I'm sure they are by life in the patriarchal Midwest, women in general are short-changed by the picture, but that's still no excuse.