The most impressive aspect of James Franco’s “In Dubious Battle” is, by far, its cast. Unsurprisingly, Franco stars in his adaptation of what is thought to be John Steinbeck’s first major work, and joining him is a celebrity roll call: Robert Duvall, Bryan Cranston, Ed Harris, Vincent D’Onofrio, Sam Shepard, Josh Hutcherson, Selena Gomez, Zach Braff, and even Danny McBride.
Together, they tell the story of California apple pickers who went on strike in 1933 and of the two radical activists who instigated them. But rarely has such star wattage resulted in a film so dull.
Franco has tackled legendary authors before, to mostly mediocre effect. His 2013 film “Child of God” adapted Cormac McCarthy, while William Faulkner got a double shot of the Franconian treatment with 2014’s “The Sound and the Fury” and 2013’s “As I Lay Dying.” (If you haven’t heard, he’s a busy guy: He directed five films in 2013 alone.) Franco brought along the scripter of the last two, Matt Rager, to adapt Steinbeck’s portrait of worker subjugation and the beginnings of a movement toward the right to organize.
Though the underpinnings of communism are rife in the ideals of Mac (Franco) and Jim (Nat Wolff), no variation of the word is uttered; the pair are simply members of “a party.” But even this isn’t made clear when the younger Jim shows up to Mac’s office to join him on a mission: You’re not sure why Mac is so jacked up about the plight of the apple pickers, who are being paid one-third the wages they were promised.
Jim, however, soon reveals his own motives. “I had all this inside me,” he says, failing to define what “this” specifically is. “I never had anywhere to put it. I just fought! But now I have a chance to fight for somethin’. I wanna fight for somethin’. I want that. That’s all I want.”
“In Dubious Battle” is chock-full of such purdy speechifying, obliterating the script’s chance to sound organic. Usually the words come from Mac, who takes center stage despite the novel being Jim’s story — which makes Jim’s fast embrace of fieriness seem uncharacteristic. First he’s a lackey; then he’s a leader. Wolff, too, is pure aw-shucks-ness, a solid casting choice for the first half of the film but the wrong actor to round out the second.
Regarding the rest of the cast, well, blink and you’ll miss some of them. Hutcherson is hard to recognize under that cowpoke hat, while the presence of Cranston, Braff and McBride may come as surprises to anyone who just sat through cinematographer Bruce Thierry Cheung’s thick veil of darkness.
Often it’s impossible to see the actors’ faces during scenes that take place indoors or at night. Yes, it’s 1933 and electricity in rural areas was largely still the stuff of dreams, but realism doesn’t have to mean that your audience shouldn’t see what the hell is going on. Gomez, meanwhile, may be serviceable as a new single mother and Jim’s love interest, but she looks a little too Hollywood to blend in. (Their falling-in-love montage? One part of the film that you wouldn’t mind not seeing.)
Cheung’s dim bulbs also muddle crucial scenes of double-crossing near the end of the film. There’s a, well, bad apple among the strikers, and a couple of structures get burned to the ground, but even amidst all the day-after yelling, you’re not quite sure who did what to whom.
Yelling, in fact, is the predominant language here, with only 86-year-old Duvall, as the rich employer against whom the establishment is bucking, able to communicate chilly vengefulness without raising his voice. You’ll pay attention to this top performance as the actor oozes greed. All the rest? Eventually, it’s just noise.