By Adam Ray Palmer
Our last review from Venezia73 will be for James Franco’s In Dubious Battle that screened in the Sala Giardini theatre with the main man in attendance.
Based on a novel by John Steinbeck published in 1936, James Franco directs and produces with Matt Rager adapting the screenplay.
Screening out of competition here, In Dubious Battle played to over 3,000 people in four days and received great acclaim…
Set in the 1930s at the heart of the Great Depression, in the California apple country, nine hundred migratory workers rise up "in dubious battle" against the landowners in the Labour movement. The group takes on a life of its own, stronger than its individual members and more frightening. Led by the youthful Jim Nolan (Nat Wolff), the strike is founded on his tragic idealism on the "courage never to submit or yield."
James Franco packs his film full of talent with many A-listers varying in experience. We have movie veterans in Ed Harris, Robert Duvall and Bryan Cranston but we also have fresher faced stars in Selena Gomez, Nat Wolff, Ashely Greene and Josh Hutcherson.
James Franco plays Mac Macleod, a leader in a small group of activists that fight for workers’ rights. He lives with Joy (Ed Harris) who is an old-timer and also fights for the cause. Mac enlists young Jim Nolan (Wolff) into his group with the future image being Nolan running the fold, or perhaps even dying for what they believe in.
The group travel out of the city and into the apple country where fields upon fields are being picked for apples by under-paid workers. They are promised $3 a day but only take ‘home’ $1 as the boss Bolton (Robert Duvall) is enforcing a tough ruling alongside his daughter Danni (Ashley Greene). When Jim and Mac turn up, they use the leader of the apple pickers London (Vincent D’Onofro) to get buy-in from the rest of the pickers. They struggle at first but when the duo help deliver Lisa’s baby (Selena Gomez, London’s daughter), London quickly owes them. However, Vinnie (Josh Hutcherson) isn’t convinced by Jim and Mac as he toils with why they are really here, plus, he has his eye on Lisa who has her claws into Jim – a classic love triangle!
James Franco has three jobs to do here. He produces effectively, he directs with a distinctive style and plays the role of Mac confidently. Mac is a very important character in the film as the development of Mac is key. Franco must make the audience buy into him in the beginning but then as the narrative plays out, he needs to make sure the viewers doubt Macleod along with the field pickers. It’s a difficult challenge to juggle but I think James nails it. Mac is cool and alluring from the opening scene but when we learn more about his personality and the lengths he is willing to go to, you question his motives and how honest he is. There is no doubt he wants the best for the workers, but he is definitely more inclined to let others take the fall before he does.
Jim Nolan also grows as the film develops. He starts out as an innocent youth driven by the death of his father who was activist so ‘it feels right’ to fight for justice in every way. Jim seems follow a path that is mapped out by Mac. Jim is caring and loving from the outset with Lisa and her baby, but as the movement picks up pace, he becomes a lot more entwined and cold. From the character growth we see of Nolan, it’s a certain doom that lingers much like a Shakespeare play.
The supporting cast are a little rougher round the edges. Josh Hutcherson who has starred in major films, still doesn’t quite give the performance his character is set up to be. You never fully believe his moody and rebel persona. The same can be said for Selena Gomez, her maternal figure is very unbelievable and looks way too glamorous in every shot to be living in ‘slums’. Ed Harris as Joy and D’Onofrio as London offer the best support in their respective roles. The potty-mouthed Joy is a portrayed expertly by Ed Harris. The hard-working and butch London is a character the audience can get behind from start to finish.
In Dubious Battle just seems a bit lackadaisical at times. It’s perhaps Franco’s mismatch of camera shots coupled with an extravagant script to adapt. The adaptation by Rager from the 1936 novel stands at a runtime of just under two hours which seems adequate, but perhaps a little short for the narrative. It’s of course necessary to get the length of the film down but it does seem a little rushed at times.
The scenes seem to be 10 minute sequences pushed together rather than a nicely-paced ensemble. It has an ‘onto the next one’ kind of style that never really irons out. It’s clearly a passion-project for James Franco who is currently study English at degree-level but it’s seems a tad ambitious after seeing the finished product. If the performances aren’t as good as they are, it could have been a disaster. As it turns out, it’s a good film from the multi-skilled actor.
Cineroom’s Rating: 3.5 Stars
In Dubious Battle will be released later this year – certificate TBC