Published on June 27th, 2017 | by Allan Brown0
EIFF 2017: In Dubious Battle Review
Movie Review: In Dubious Battle (2017)
UK Release Date: TBC
Running Time: 110 minutes
Director: James Franco
Writers: Matt Rager, John Steinbeck (Novel)
Cast: James Franco, Nat Wolff, Vincent D’Onofrio, Selena Gomez, Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Robert Duvall, John Savage, Josh Hutcherson, Bryan Cranston, Zach Braff
James Franco is a complex figure in the film industry and not one so easily labelled. A healthy thing you might say. On the one hand, you have James Franco the movie star, famous for his insipid juvenile comedies with Seth Rogan and chums. Then there’s James Franco the insufferable intellectual; a professor at UCLA, a screenwriter, a poet, a painter, an actor and a director who churns out more films per annum than is almost humanly possible. As refined as his taste in the arts might be, Franco has an unrelinquished passion for adapting ‘seemingly unfilmable’ literary classics for the big screen. Sadly, as shown with his previous incarnations of William Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’, ‘The Sound and the Fury’ and with Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Child of God’, it is once again clear that his literary taste much exceeds his directorial grasp.
John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle takes place in 1930s California during the great depression. This was a period in time that saw activists fight to form unions with labour workers against the industrial and agricultural elite. This story in particular, shines light on the fruit pickers who travelled from around the country to the orchards, only to have their pay cut in half from what was previously advertised. The catalyst for this labour uprising is Mac (James Franco), and his protégée Jim (Nat Wolff) who proves himself more ruthless in sacrificing individuals for future success than his partner.
As rich as Steinbeck’s text may be, Franco’s butchered adaptation is so hammered with exposition that it makes the narrative feel thin and episodic. Instead of allowing the characters to seep into the framework of the narrative, Franco jumps from one rousing speech to the next and from one tepid plot point to another, always at the expense of natural flow and substance.
While the sets are impressive in creating the look and feel of the time, the digital cinematography gives a superficial polished gleam that screams NEW! This is often a problem with historical dramas that are shot in digital and here it to serves as a distraction, pulling you right out of the 1930s and back into the present day.
But it’s not all bad; In Dubious Battle does offer some plethora of compelling performances throughout its 110 min running time. These range from Ed Harris and Vincent D’Onofrio to Robert Duvall and Bryan Cranston who all demand your attention when on screen. Then there are the young actors like Nat Wolff and Josh Hutcherson, who both do a great job regardless of the hoakey screenplay they are left to navigate. And as charming as Franco can be on screen, his limited range as an actor – who has put himself in the central role, is just another glaring misstep in a film that lacks any real conviction.
Summary: A thin, episodic and painfully generic retooling of a literary classic that feels like it’s been done on the cheap. A John Ford film this is not.