People have really strong opinions when it comes to James Franco. Some love his movie star magnetism – the million-dollar James Dean smile he flashed in Sam Raimi’s first three Spider-Man movies and contorts in service of comedic Seth Rogen team-ups. In-between these marquee stints are his more controversial art projects, like the Cruising “lost scenes” pseudo-doc Interior. Leather Bar., or the numerous cinematic adaptations of classic authors like Cormac McCarthy (Child of God) and William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury). Following his ‘14 turn as George Milton for Broadway director Anna Shapiro’s Of Mice and Men revival, Franco’s turned his filmic sights on bringing John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle to a two-screener near you. The tale of Jim (Nat Wolff) and Mac (Franco) – workers’ advocates during the Depression – Franco’s using his clout to hand out required reading lists. Class is in session, but is he a good enough director to make us care?
It’s easy to understand Franco’s desire to bring Steinbeck’s tale of blue-collar revolution to a modern audience. Jim and Mac invade a spread of California apple orchards, hoping to incite a strike amongst the exploited pickers who travel for miles, spending the last cents they have in order to earn a dollar a day. The bosses (represented by Robert Duvall’s stately presence) promised the laborers three times that wage, and have banded together to ensure that no higher rate can be discovered on neighboring plots. Once the work begins, order is kept through a constant threat of violence, as a black clad foreman (consummate player in the Franco Community Theatre, Scott Haze) gets his jollies by beating on the downtrodden drudges. Along with screenwriter Matt Rager (who has now penned three of these adaptations for the filmmaker), Franco downgrades the politics of the original text, which was originally conceived by its author as an autobiography of a Communist organizer. Instead, he opts to focus on the wanton brutality doled out by those in charge (who often wear a badge or hold some sort of authoritative position), as the laborers slave in clenched-jaw silence, believing they’re powerless against this oppression.
Outside of Vincent D’Onofrio (who plays London, leader of the force) every big name in the picture seems like they were called-in favors to perform a day or two of work. However, that’s not to say each actor doesn’t give it their all in these short stints. Ed Harris’ Joy screams in defiance and confusion, waving his broken hands before slapping himself in the face, crying about how the cops beat him into the punch drunk he is now. Duvall’s all class, radiating menacing antiquity while commanding an army and allowing his daughter to observe his meetings so that she knows how his business should be managed after he passes. Sam Shepard negotiates terms like a true Southern gentleman, just after John Savage falls off of a faulty ladder, breaking his leg and nearly inciting a riot thanks to the perceived piss poor conditions the pickers are operating under. By the time Bryan Cranston shows up late in the game as an entrenched Sheriff, there’s a near Pavlovian cameo effect that causes the viewer to sit up and start pointing at the screen, while simultaneously taking them out of the dramatic moment. It’s a walk-on brigade begging for announcement title cards, but each and every one is earning their (presumed) scale in service of Franco’s formally reserved adaptation.
Not faring so well are the younger members of this sprawling ensemble, all of whom act like they’re in the drama department answer to this rather spiffy looking $15 million independent film. Nat Wolff (The Fault in Our Stars) suffers the most, utterly miscast from even a physical standpoint (he’s described as a brawny scrapper while looking like a string bean nothing). Franco does his damndest to try and lift the kid up as his principled mentor, but no amount of obvious artistic challenging can help. Unintentionally hilarious moments come from Jim’s mini-love story with an abandoned new mother (Selena Gomez), which resembles awards bait parody (or a feature expansion on a lost trailer from Tropic Thunder). There’s an odd instance of inspired meta-texual casting in seeing Zach Braff (possibly atoning for his Mitt Romney selfies) show up as an establishment scab, looking to pull the pickers apart. The only true hero of this new generation is Haze (formerly the crazed center of Franco’s Child of God), whose every gesture seems to push him toward horrible terrorism. All the while, cinematographer Bruce Thierry Cheung (The Adderall Diaries) works his ass off to infuse each scene with a lush yet predictable palette.
If In Dubious Battle is a failure (and one could certainly argue that it is) then it’s a noble one. James Franco is assigning us all homework in the name of studying up on the rights granted to us not just as American citizens, but as freeborn men and women. Steinbeck’s novel proposed the notion that a fair wage for a fair day’s work transcended any sort of political affiliation, skyrocketing into the stratosphere of a God given privilege. Any movie extolling this virtue with such talented folks in the forefront is certainly worth a look, despite its rather obvious flaws. Between acting, writing, producing and directing, James Franco has nearly twenty different projects premiering in ‘17. The simple fact that he’s now devoted this much time to bringing the classics into your local art house or home via VOD is a testament to how essential he considers these works and their authors to be. So regardless of your stance on the young Renaissance Man’s actual execution, his efforts in the name of educational human empathy should not go unnoticed.
In Dubious Battle is out now in select theaters and on VOD.