James Franco’s death march through the American literary canon continues with In Dubious Battle, a John Steinbeck adaptation so conventionally dismal that it makes one better appreciate the artsy, dawdling garbage that is the actor turned dilettante’s usual stock in trade. Every Franco personal project—from his unintelligible, low-budget adaptations of William Faulkner (As I Lay Dying, The Sound And The Fury) and Cormac McCarthy (Child Of God) to his novels and assorted experiments in self-fellatio—is born with a “Kick Me” sign on its back, begging critics to punt it in the keister for making artistic ambition look lame. This one even comes with a freebie: It’s got “dubious” right there in the title. But instead of being sloppily miscalculated (the “Franco touch”), this attempt at a Depression-era labor drama in the vein of John Sayles just bores its way through almost two hours of screen time, never rising above anonymity.
Wearing a scraggly beard, Franco stars as Mac, a union organizer determined to get the migrant apple pickers of a California valley to go on strike. The script, by repeat Franco collaborator Matt Rager, has one inspired idea: It handles the plot of Steinbeck’s 1936 novel as a heist. Accompanied by rookie Jim (Nat Wolff), the son of a legendary labor activist, Mac arrives in the valley dressed as a hobo, ingratiating himself with the de facto leader of the pickers, London (a wheezy Vincent D’Onoforio), in order to convince the community to fight for a living wage. It doesn’t have any style, but at least the caper-like nuts-and-bolts process gives In Dubious Battle a whiff of forward momentum, which dissipates once the pickers actually go on strike. Packed with characters who leave little to no impression, the second half of the film slogs like a sleep-deprived Matewan, ambling through political talking points, standoffs with armed strikebreakers, and a barely coherent love triangle involving Jim, Mac, and London’s daughter-in-law, Lisa (Selena Gomez, lost and trying to find her way back to a different film).
Not even the holy trinity of codgers—Robert Duvall, Ed Harris, and Sam Shepard, as, respectively, the pickers’ boss, an activist, and a local farmer—can give life to this thing. Franco’s camerawork is as meaningless as ever, but now also pedestrian: He uses the widescreen frame only to put whoever is talking the loudest in the middle and surround them with seemingly undirected extras, who stand with their arms folded over their dirty coveralls, nodding as they listen. Bruce Thierry Cheung’s score overcompensates, but it isn’t fooling anyone; no amount of percussion can cover up the fact that this earnest, inoffensive movie is about as urgent as required reading. Franco has made a dozen narrative features, along with a number of documentaries and shorts, and In Dubious Battle is but one of six directorial efforts he has due this year. On he trudges, intent on settling the question of whether filmmaking can be learned through rote repetition, or whether it actually takes talent.