James Franco has created a strange niche for his career by directing and starring in classic literature adaptations. His works thus far include “Of Mice and Men,” “As I Lay Dying,” “Child of God” and “The Sound and The Fury,” all of which received mixed responses from critics. However, it’s hard not to respect him for trying, given that adaptations are often thankless passion projects not guaranteed to earn money but almost certainly guaranteed to earn the ire of literature enthusiasts.
Franco’s latest attempt in this contentious genre is “In Dubious Battle,” based on the 1936 John Steinbeck novel of the same name that captures the California agriculture strikes of 1933. Franco stars as a workers’ rights organizer during the Depression who tries to kick start a strike across the California apple orchards. Robert Duvall stars as Franco’s new protege and Vincent D’Onofrio plays a reluctant apple picker who leads the newly formed revolt. Josh Hutcherson, Danny McBride, Bryan Cranston and Selena Gomez all appear in supporting roles. What starts as a simple strike quickly escalates into a violent resistance as the orchard owners decide that the easiest solution would be to use lethal force — clearly, this was not an era that was kind to labor efforts.
“In Dubious Battle” is a solidly-made B-film that hits every note it needs to. Great actors belt the novel’s lines, creating melodramatic yet adequate performances. The cinematography is clean and smooth, if not a bit flat and safe. The emotional scenes often work, the continued escalations get fairly tense and the villain’s successes genuinely make one’s blood boil.
The film also ties the significance of workers’ rights struggles to the current debates raging today. It emphasizes that thousands of protesters were beaten, abused and killed just for the right to have a minimum wage and have reasonable work hours.
If it seems like this review is a bit bare-bones, it’s because the film itself adequate, which makes it difficult to nitpick or sing high praises. Franco is establishing himself as a competent — if unflashy — director. While he played around with some experimental techniques in “As I Lay Dying”— namely having frequent split screens — here, everything is largely shot straight and simple, save for the occasional stirring or shocking images. His focus is on simply getting the job done, and he does it pretty well.
All in all, “In Dubious Battle” is a simple and moderately engaging film. While it might be most interesting for novel enthusiasts or those following Franco’s strange and eclectic career, this movie has just enough entertainment to make for a quality streaming experience.
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