Let it be known that I genuinely like James Franco. Given the choice between ‘yer average pretty boy movie star and a ludicrous avant-garde polymath jester, I’ll pick the latter every time. Problem is, while the self-titled Mayor of Gay Town gleefully smashes through cultural/social/artistic boundaries like a steam train, the art that’s produced at the end of it is… not great.
And so to In Dubious Battle, an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1936 novel of the same name and the latest in Franco’s quest to put his favorite books on screen. This weighty literary project has, thus far, borne little of value. His adaptations of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying were “nearly unwatchable” and “stale and jumbled,” and his take on Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God “tedious and meandering”. Sadly, this trend remains unbroken.
Set during the Great Depression, this is the story of striking fruit-pickers in a California Valley. We open with boss man Bolton (Robert Duvall) informing a gang of bedraggled looking migrants that, due to market forces, he can no longer pay them the wage they were promised. He offers them a meagre salary of a dollar a day. It’s a pittance, but these workers have nowhere else to go and no choice but to take it.
Duvall’s mercenary capitalist has spotted and exploited an opportunity – but so too has rabble-rouser Mac McLeod (James Franco). McLeod is a straggly bearded, Lenin cap wearing socialist, positively burning with Marxist indignation that the common man should spend his life being ground into the dirt. He sets out to stoke the workers’ fury and encourage them to strike, hoping it might be the catalyst for a wider American worker’s revolution.
He’s joined by socialist neophyte Jim Nolan (Nat Wolff), upon whom the film’s themes of personal attachment vs. mass societal progress play out. Filling out the cast are an impressive bunch of actors – ranging from sure bets like Ed Harris, Bryan Cranston and Sam Shepard to more surprising (but largely effective) choices like Zach Braff, Danny McBride and Selena Gomez.
Admittedly, first impressions aren’t bad. Franco summons up some caper movie thrills when he introduces us to our would-be revolutionaries. Similarly, the early scenes where Mac and Jim ingratiate themselves with the workers, eager to find any cracks they can exploit to manipulate them towards direct action work well.
The film is at its best when it’s tiptoeing the moral boundary between exploiting the worker’s anger in the hope they’ll get what they’re owed and treating them as pawns in a larger struggle. This allows Mac to convincingly rationalize lying to them by explaining that their entire social class will benefit. After all, what’s the misery of an individual worker weighed against the poverty of generations to come?
Then the strike begins and the film starts a rapid descent into dullness. From this point we’re locked into a single muddy location, watching a painfully boring siege. Granted, this boredom is kind of the point – but that doesn’t make it interesting to watch. It’s here, with the characters given not much to do other than wait around, that the shortcomings in Franco’s directorial skills become exposed.
Given his penchant for experimentation and the avant-garde, you might expect Franco to direct in bold strokes, trying to push the boundaries of what a Steinbeck adaptation might look like. Instead, we get a completely anonymous paint-by-numbers directorial style with more than a whiff of TV movie to it. What results is a film that, at least in its latter half, is essentially a bunch of increasingly frazzled, muddy men yelling at each other in a damp field, directed with zero panache.
In Dubious Battle’s failure is frustrating on two levels. The first comes with the quickly doused flicker of hope that Franco might have finally made a decent movie. He’s so close this time – with just a bit more visual style and some editorial nips and tucks here and there this could have strayed into the realms of ‘good.’
The second level is that the subject of exploited migrant workers is a hot button topic that demands cinematic inquiry. On top of the parallels with contemporary economic immigration into the US, audiences should be reminded that the workers’ rights these characters fought and died for are steadily being eroded. It’s crucial not to take them for granted – they’re cemented into law with blood, sweat and tears. But, sadly, In Dubious Battle is unlikely to inspire anything other than blank-faced boredom.
I still hold out hope that one day James Franco will direct a genuinely good movie, but sadly, In Dubious Battle is not it.