A lot of top flight talent wanted to be a part of James Franco‘s most ambitious movie as a director. Scene after scene of “In Dubious Battle” is filled with the faces of Ed Harris, Bryan Cranston, Robert Duvall, Sam Shepard and others.
Selena Gomez, Josh Hutcherson, Zach Braff, Vincent D’Onofrio — generations of Hollywood signed on for this film of John Steinbeck‘s sober, archetypal account of a fruit pickers strike in Great Depression California.
It’s no “Grapes of Wrath,” but the period detail is impressive enough, and the clear-eyed cynicism of strikers veering from victims to violence still stings, even if the story tends towards the dated and the melodramatic.
And Franco is somewhat let down by his lead, the former child actor Nat Wolff (“The Naked Brothers Band,” “The Intern”), who plays a naive young organizer meant to grow into a leader during the course of the strike.
Franco plays Mac, a battle-scarred veteran of the labor movement who leads young Jim (Wolff) into the apple groves in 1933, where desperate pickers have been lured by a promised price that the apple baron (Robert Duvall) refuses to honor.
“You can either whine or go to work,” he sneers.
Mac sidles up to the one picker with some backbone (Vincent D’Onofrio). He picks the fighters and the martyrs out in the crowd and uses them to his own aims. Jim gets close to the pregnant Lisa (Gomez), old timer Dan (John Savage) and others.
As the workers are convinced, cajoled or tricked into striking, the seeds of the strike’s destruction seem right out in the open. Vinnie (Hutcherson) also has eyes on Lisa. The sympathetic farmer (Sam Shepard) who helps them has limits to his sympathies.
And Lisa, Jim and London start to see Mac as almost as ruthless as the owner, who brings in trigger-happy Pinkerton thugs, has the backing of a conniving county government, local law enforcement (Bryan Cranston), none of whom are shy about spilling the blood of “communists” — what the wealthy have long labeled anybody who stands up to them and demands fair pay.
It’s a heavy-handed book (Barack Obama has called it his favorite Steinbeck novel) that plays like a sermon on the screen, complete with cautionary homilies and the sage observations of a semi-sympathetic doctor, who has the distance to see evil in even the most righteous cause. The good lines are passed around democratically.
“That sounds like hope,” Savage’s weary old man growls, upon hearing one appeal. “Only the young’uns got time for hope.”
Franco is well-cast as the veteran organizer who sees the cause and the big picture as paramount. But Ed Harris all but steals the movie as Joy, a clear-eyed fanatic whose passion has not dimmed even as the years of beatings by armed strike-breakers have made him punch drunk.
Wolff, meant to be the soul of the story, the pupil who absorbs the passions and learns the lessons — sometimes violence can only be met by violence — of Mac, Joy and the pragmatic organizer Edie (Ahna O’Reilly), never swells into the Tom Joad figure he’s meant to become. There’s a lack of screen presence mirrored by his contemporaries in the cast — Gomez and Hutcherson.
So as thrilling as it is that Franco got “In Dubious Battle” made — the title comes from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” — and as impressive as the cast list is on paper, his inability to spot star power and screen charisma is actors younger than himself lets him and Steinbeck down.
Thanks to them, this “Battle” never feels like a sweeping victory. It’s often just a grudging draw.
MPAA Rating: R for some violence and brief sexuality
Cast: James Franco, Nat Wolff, Selena Gomez, Robert Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ahna O’Reilly, Bryan Cranston
Credits:Directed by James Franco, script by , based on the John Steinbeck novel. An eOne/Momentum release.
Running time: 1:53