‘In Dubious Battle’
Director: James Franco
Stars: James Franco, Nat Wolff
2 (out of 5) Globes
What James Franco does is admirable — in theory. We’re not talking about his comedy turns, which are above reproach, even when the film is “Why Him?” We’re talking about his sidejob as an incorrigibly prolific dilettante — a would-be renaissance man who paints, who writes poetry, who directs seven movies a year, on top of being an occasional movie star. It’s a noble deed, what he does, and that a bulk of his filmmaking CV is lined with ambitious literary adaptations of unfilmable novels could even be impressive, not foolish. In practice, it’s a drag watching him fail to prove that William Faulkner translates to the screen, or that he’s becoming a better filmmaker with endless, endless practice.
John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle” isn’t unfilmable, and not even when compared to previous Franco hatchet jobs like “As I Lay Dying,” “The Sound and the Fury” and Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God.” It has a clean story with three acts, little in the way of lengthy poetic passages even a timely subject. It looks back to the Depression, namely to the activists who fought to unionize beleaguered workers against greedy and murderous capitalist pigs. For Franco, it’s a chance to show he can play ball, produce something that doesn’t turn a literary masterpiece into an unsightly doodle with murky digital cinematography. If it didn’t possess the grit and the nuance of John Sayles’ own union picture, “Matewan,” it could find its own personality.
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Instead, Franco’s “In Dubious Battle” plays like imitation Oscar bait done on the cheap. The vibe is a production of the Max Fischer Players that happens to occasionally include titans like Ed Harris, Robert Duvall and Bryan Cranston (as well as rando ringers like Zach Braff, Ashley Greene and Selena Gomez). The ensemble cast also includes Franco himself, in a turn as charismatic as his filmmaking is dodgy. He plays Mac, a fiery organizer who dons a dusty denim shirt and a smart newsboy cap to unionize a pack of apple pickers, who showed up to a California job only to learn they’d be paid a third of their promised wages. Because the union-protecting Wagner Act is still two years away, their heartless boss (Duvall) isn’t above letting loose violent busters who aren’t above assault, arson or Gatling guns.
This is still Steinbeck, though, and while he’s on the side of the workers, that doesn’t mean they always come off as saintly. They can be petty, they can get mired in bickering, they can even commit violence as bad as what’s unleashed by their oppressors. Filmmakers like John Ford created rough poetry out of Steinbeck’s stark prose. But Franco’s stab isn’t in the same universe as Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” He doesn’t think in images; too often you get the sense of rushing to the next plot point or message or rabble-rousing speech. His “In Dubious Battle” doesn’t soften the socialism but it still feels superficial; when characters argue, it’s rarely about anything specific. It feels generic, as though Franco only adapted the book because it was a piece of Great Literature, not an ever-insightful study of class warfare. Hate to play presumptive psychologist, but dude needs to slow down. That might not be the thing to fix Franco the filmmaker, but trying to be the Robert Pollard of cinema isn’t working either.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge