I'm rooting for James Franco here, really I am. Making fun of his attempts to become an artsy-fartsy filmmaker through literary adaptations way beyond his means is way too easy, and to be fair I've picked apart most of them. But along the way there has been improvement. The Sound and the Fury was a sight better than Child of God, that's for sure. Franco's unnecessary visual flourishes (seen to a worrying degree in As I Lay Dying) to prove his directorial mettle have been severely limited in his dramatization of John Steinbeck's labor movement classic, In Dubious Battle, making it his most expert effort yet. The only problem is he may have stepped too far over the picket line and to the other side.
There is practically zero of Franco's directorial imprint on this film from a visual perspective, and even less of his voice. Whatever one thinks of Franco he is a contemporary who isn't afraid to speak on current topics, so why hasn't he drawn any connections between Steinbeck's thoughts on worker rights and what's going on today. The labor movement has never been in greater peril than it is now, and In Dubious Battle makes a strong case for its defense even if it could have been much stronger. What's confusing about it is that Franco clearly has passion for Steinbeck's version of post-Depression rural America. From the ratty, misshapen shacks to the vacant, hungry stares of their inhabitants, Franco captures the hopeless mood of the era.
Franco casts himself in the role of Mac, a leader in "The Party" (Basically the Communist Party, although Steinbeck doesn't say so) at a time when being part of the American labor movement could be a death sentence, professionally and physically. Mac is a jaded old veteran of too many of these disputes, but he gets a jolt of youthful energy with the arrival of Jim (Nat Wolff), who has yet to have idealism beaten out of him. That's kind of the story's arc, though; watching Jim slowly realize what the stakes truly are just for workers to be treated like human beings. Because there is a heavy price to pay, especially when they decide to help out a group of California apple pickers who keep having their wages slashed by boss Bolton (Robert Duvall), who offers them a mere $1 a day. That's not enough for anyone to live on, but most workers can't afford to refuse. That includes the workers' eventual union leader London (Vincent D'Onofrio), who has pregnant daughter-in-law Lisa (Selena Gomez) to think of. So Mac and Jim become the rabble-rousers of this little outfit, stirring up animosity against Bolton with the help of firebrands Edie (Ahna O'Reilly) and Vera (Analeigh Tipton). The dire consequences of striking are reflected in Joy (Ed Harris), a broken down old activist rendered witless by too many beatdowns by anti-labor forces. While Bolton and his murderous crew of thugs and Pinkerton agents are obviously portrayed as hardcore villains, Mac walks a thin moral line, too. Finding the workers too passive to fight, but a potential powder keg ready to explode, he's not afraid to exploit one activist's murder and the curious injury of a beloved employee to rally them.
One of Franco's issues that he has yet to shed is his strict adherence to the source material. While that's fine for certain adaptations it's cumbersome here with a wealth of characters all having their own arcs to muddle through. There's a budding love between Jim and Lisa that works on multiple levels. Wolff and Gomez starred together in the little-seen comedy, Behaving Badly, so they share a certain chemistry no other pair can match. It also gives Jim someone to be responsible for, the primary reason why some choose to fight and why others choose to keep their heads down. Unfortunately, it gets lost in too many other subplots that don't come to fruition. In particular the mentor/student relationship Jim shares with Mac never goes as far as it should have, making a key sacrifice later in the movie an empty gesture. I think if there is a consistent thread to Franco's work it's his ability to coax great performances from his cast. It may be his own experience in front of the camera but he does have a knack for it, which is why he's always able to get so many talented people for what amount to extended cameos. Josh Hutcherson, Bryan Cranston, Sam Shepard, Ashley Greene, and many more make worthy contributions without overstaying their welcome.
In Dubious Battle will likely slip by without anybody paying it much mind, and that's a shame. It deserves better than that, especially with the progression it shows in Franco as a director. He's always had the balls to adapt literary classics more-experienced directors would shy away from. If Franco is now starting to get a handle on his craft he could be on the verge of a real breakthrough.
Rating: 3 out of 5