'In Dubious Battle': Venice Review

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival

James Franco's latest Steinbeck adaptation is headlined by Nat Wolff, Selena Gomez, Robert Duvall and Sam Shepard and stars Franco himself as McLeod.

Continuing his brave effort to ensure that future students of American literature can just buy the VOD equivalent of a box set instead of ever having to read another Great American Novel again, actor-director James Franco has moved from adapting Faulkner (As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury) and McCarthy (Child of God) to Steinbeck with In Dubious Battle. The author's novel is the first of what would become Steinbeck’s Dustbowl trilogy (which also includes Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath) and recounts a Great Depression-era strike that apple pickers in California organized to get the wages they were promised when they were faced with a significant pay cut.

Franco has assembled an impressive but also distractingly heterogeneous cast that includes people as different as Selena Gomez, Robert Duvall, Nat Wolff, Sam Shepard, Zach Braff and Ed Harris. That cast might help the film tap into different potential audiences when it hits VOD, but since his previous adaptations have generated lackluster box-office returns, it is sadly unlikely that this will be playing on a big screen anywhere outside of festivals and special events. It premiered at Venice in the new Cinema nel giardino section and will also screen at Deauville and Toronto.

Franco appeared in a Broadway adaptation of Of Mice and Men in 2014 and the author has clearly stayed with him, with the artist again asking Matthew Rager, who co-adapted the two Faulkner books he directed, to write a screenplay based on Steinbeck’s 1936 novel.

The work, which grew out of Steinbeck’s need to document what was going on in reality but ultimately became a fictional novel instead of a journalistic work, is more interested in cause(s) and effects rather than character (like in the better-known Mice and Men and Grapes) and Rager’s relatively faithful adaptation does little to change that. And unlike in especially As I Lay Dying, there is not a lot of risk-taking involved in the visual storytelling or in trying to find a cinematic equivalent of the novel’s style, making In Dubious Battle a rather classical period piece for the most part, though one with at least one very solid performance at its center.

The story, set in 1933, focuses on young Jim (21-year-old Wolff, from Paper Towns), the latest recruit of a small political party who’s taken under his wing by the smooth-talking and more experienced Mac McCloud (Franco). Their approach to fighting for workers’ rights is to infiltrate a large group of apple pickers in the (fictional) Torgus Valley in California — shot in Washington and Georgia — who have been told by the local landowner, Bolton (Robert Duvall), that their pay won’t be $3 a day but actually just $1 a day because “times are tough”.

Mac and Jim’s plan is to pose as apple pickers, get to know their colleagues and then try to turn their simmering resentment over the pay cut into ammunition for a strike that should finally make the lives of all workers better. Their necessity to find a potential leader from among the workers involves both men pretending to be experts at various things, including, in one of the film’s notable scenes, delivering the baby of a dark-haired young woman, Lisa (Gomez), whose burly, middle-aged father is later elected the workers’ leader. But when the apple pickers finally do go on strike, it is only the beginning of more trouble, as the rich landowners have no qualms about resorting to deceit, violence and an assortment of criminal acts to finally get their apples off the trees.  

As in practically all the films that Franco has directed and in which he has also starred, his own performance is not given enough attention and is a little uneven. Mac is a master of telling people what they want to hear so he can get them on their side but this quality only comes through occasionally and it’s hard to get a good handle on what he’s really like underneath. Some people call him cold or only dedicated to the cause but there’s not enough material here for audiences to judge whether that is true or not. Thankfully, young Wolff is perfectly cast as the youngster besides Mac’s more experienced political motivator and he has a fascinating character arc as he falls in love with Lisa, sees how political ideas can be put into practice and then how politics isn’t only about abstract ideas and ideals but also about accepting the risks of one’s actions. If In Dubious Battle remains watchable, it’s because Wolff really sells his character’s doubts, growth and sobering reality checks.

Gomez’s line readings are OK-ish but with those baby-fat cheeks and her glamorous hair, it’s practically impossible to accept she’s a malnourished young mother living in 1933. It would be hard to find someone looking less like Florence Owens Thompson — the migrant mother (and pea picker) captured by Dorothea Lange who would become the face of all mothers during the Great Depression — than Gomez. In (thankfully) a single scene, Braff is another face that looks completely out of place among the otherwise mostly anonymous working masses.

The rest of the enormous cast doesn’t really have all that much to do. Duvall’s villain — he represents the one percent of the 1930s — isn’t exactly menacing while great actors including Shepard, Harris, Bryan Cranston and Vincent D’Onofrio don’t have more than a scene or two each. Even Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson isn’t given all that much to work with in a role that could’ve been used to illuminate the evolving psychology and sinking morale of the workers on strike as the days drag on, they receive no pay, their supplies get cut off and they start to risk infighting as well as bodily harm inflicted on them by the goons employed by the landowners.

Technically, this is a modest independent production but the film's scale and period recreation don't suffer from that all. It’s just a shame that Franco’s dreams and ideas for this film weren’t as big as those of his protagonists.

Production companies: Ambi Group, Aperture Media Partners, Rabbit Bandini, That’s Hollywood

Cast: James Franco, Nat Wolff, Vincent D’Onofrio, Selena Gomez, Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Josh Hutcherson, Ashley Greene, John Savage, Zach Braff, Analeigh Tipton, Robert Duvall, Bryan Cranston

Director: James Franco

Screenplay: Matthew Rager

Producers: Vince Jolivette, Iris Torres, Andrea Iervolino, Monika Bacardi, Scott Reed, Ron Singer

Co-producers: Luca Matrundola, Tarek Tohme

Director of photography: Bruce Thierry Cheung

Production designer: Kristen Adams

Costume designer: David Page

Editors: Gary D. Roach, Aaron I. Butler

Music: Hauschka

Casting: Cynthia Huffman

No rating, 114 minutes

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