“In Dubious Battle” is not the first movie about a labor strike with Robert Duvall as the antagonizing boss man; that honor goes to the 1992 Disney musical starring Christian Bale, “Newsies,” in which Duvall portrayed Joseph Pulitzer. “Newsies” went on to receive five Golden Raspberry Award nominations, but it contained more drama and gusto than this humorless dirge from director-star James Franco.
This smug period drama follows the conventional narrative of an idealistic revolutionary and his fearless leader as they incite a strike among apple pickers in California’s fictional Torgas Valley. Matt Rager adapted the script from John Steinbeck’s 1936 novel, and the film is largely based on events that occurred during the California labor strikes of 1933.
Franco is Mac, a spirited labor rights activist (some say Communist) who takes young Jim (Nat Wolff) under his wing as the two set out to organize workers at Bolton Orchards, owned by a man simply known as Bolton (Duvall). They enlist London (Vincent D’Onofrio, squeezing naturalism out of Rager’s expository dialogue), a respected worker, to rally the forces.
London initially rebuffs Mac’s advances, but relents once Mac heroically delivers his grandson. It’s something to behold: Mac strides into the room where a speechless Lisa (Selena Gomez, in a thankless role) is shrieking in pain, elbows past two women who appear perfectly capable, makes a show of washing his hands, and yells at Lisa to push. Three yells, et voilà. You can guess Mac’s answer when Jim later asks if he’d ever done that before.
At least the absurdity is intentional; it sets Mac up as an unreliable mentor to Jim, and begins the film’s monotonous drumbeat that Mac will do “whatever it takes” for the cause. When Mac tells Jim that the cause is bigger than any one person, some betrayal is imminent. However, the radicals’ relationship is so broadly drawn that the conflict hardly registers. “You and me, we’re gonna make a good team,” says Mac, announcing their buddy dynamic as loudly as every other plot point.
Rager and Franco (who previously collaborated on two other classic adaptions, William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” and “The Sound and the Fury”) tell their story in such broad terms it’s difficult to care. The workers earn a dollar a day; they want three. Since they live on the orchard, they need a place to stay during the strike, so they end up working for free on Mr. Anderson’s (Sam Shepard) orchard in exchange for a place to camp. Bolton comes back offering $1.20 a day; when London refuses, he promises to call in the national guard.
Bolton’s menacing hired guns periodically show up, but the violence doesn’t so much escalate as punctuate. Joy (Ed Harris) gets shot, Al (Joel Marsh Garland) is beaten, and Anderson’s English Pointers die in a fire. Multiple fire bombs sail through windows, but there’s no tension in the action since it’s difficult to tell whose house is on fire, and why. Zach Braff and Bryan Cranston show up three-quarters of the way through, and Josh Hutcherson and Ashley Greene make out in a strange and underdeveloped subplot sure to confuse teen franchise fans.
Guiding us through it all is Franco, sporting a dusty newsboy cap and vaguely Southern accent. Even with a seemingly endless supply of respected actors appearing suddenly as his comrades, the reinforcements bring little relief. Franco clearly enjoys playing the idealistic rabble rouser, and who wouldn’t want to direct a movie so they could cast themselves as a charismatic radical? Unfortunately, watching someone else play make believe is only fun if you believe it yourself.
“In Dubious Battle” opens in theaters Friday, February 17th.