In Dubious Battle
Starring Nat Wolff, James Franco, Vincent D’Onofrio, Selena Gomez, Sam Shepard, Robert Duval, Ed Harris, Josh Hutcherson, Bryan Cranston
James Franco might be the hardest working filmmaker in Hollywood. He jumps from one project to another, writing, directing, acting, producing. His filmography has become so expansive and congested it’s hard to understand his accomplishments. In Dubious Battle is another fleeting “cause film” for Franco, again producer, director and leading actor. He has assembled quite a cast, mostly people he has worked with in the past including Gomez (Spring Breakers), Duval (Wild Horses), and most recently Cranston (Why Him). This film takes us back to the great depression era on the west coast where hordes of homeless roamed the lands looking for jobs and were taken advantage of by wealthy plantation owners.
It’s 1933 and Jim Nolan (Wolff) is the latest recruit for radical strike organizer Mac McLeod (Franco). The two young men set out for Northern California where they hear a large number of pickers have once again been lied to when they arrive to work, having the promised wages cut in half by the owner Bolton (Duval). Mac seeks out London (D’Onofrio), a robust and passionate man, who is elected to lead the strike against Bolton. The group of over 60 apple pickers eventually agree to strike and Mac finds them refuge on a nearby farm owned by the quiet Mr. Anderson (Shepard). He agrees allows the protesters on his land in exchange for picking apples, making him the only guy in town in production. Bolton uses force and manipulation against the protest that puts lives in dangers and creates a divide within the strikers.
Feels more like a movie intended to be shown in a classroom rather than a theater.
The last thing you probably want to pay to see in the cinema is more protesting. Franco’s film is ill timed and certainly nothing new. Adapting John Steinbeck’s novel, Franco and his screenwriter Matt Rager, take a very “on the nose” approach. Conversations between Mac and Jim explain even the simplest of details instead of showing things cinematically. The dialogue, especially in early scenes, between Franco and Wolff (The Fault of Our Stars) is stiff and overly rehearsed. The original score by Volker Bertelmann (Exodus) doesn’t add much to the film. Each character fits a certain prototype, the manipulator, the optimist, the realist, the divider, it’s all very stereotypical without a lot of surprises or suspense.
In Dubious Battle feels more like a movie intended to be shown in a classroom rather than a theater. Franco always has good intentions with these sorts of projects that tackle subject matter and parts of history studios won’t, but it’s so thin on quality that it becomes insignificant. He churns these things out that never find an audience; just piling up mediocre projects that never go anywhere. This film doesn’t have some big climax for the workers taking back what is theirs, at nearly two hours, it just sort of ends with some words on the screen explaining how history reacted to strikes like this. The lack of passion in the project is felt from performance to writing and the audience can certainly sense it. Franco like Ben Affleck’s own recent admission, is that trying to do both directorial and on screen work isn’t always the best decision.
Despite talent, good intentions and historically relevant subject matter, Franco lacks the passion to make this film work.