If John Steinbeck isn’t rolling over in his grave over the new big-screen adaptation of In Dubious Battle, he’s probably at least shaking his head.
While it’s faithful to the author’s text, this heartfelt effort from prolific actor-director James Franco misses an opportunity to bring sufficient contemporary relevance to its incendiary Depression-era source material.
The setting is familiar for Steinbeck readers: It takes place in California during the 1930s, at an apple orchard where the fruit pickers are being gouged by a greedy landowner (Robert Duvall) during desperate times.
Franco plays Doc, a radical instigator who wants to organize a strike. He sways a young sidekick (Nat Wolff) and a respected family man (Vincent D’Onofrio) to join his cause. But once the protestors dig in and management refuses to buckle, Doc’s forceful style starts to wear thin on the laborers.
However, despite the dwindling morale, Doc’s commitment can’t be denied. He even helps deliver a baby for a young woman (Selena Gomez) who’s been displaced, in between his troop-rallying speeches and negotiations on behalf of workers’ rights.
The film assembles an impressive ensemble cast, considering its limited budget. It benefits from a roster of recognizable faces including Ed Harris, Bryan Cranston, Sam Shepard, Zach Braff and Josh Hutcherson in smaller roles.
Despite some heavy-handed narration and a blunt closing-title plea, Franco’s attempts to provide a connection to modern-day protesters or a more general salute to grassroots activism feel more strained than sincere. “People wanna know their lives matter,” his character explains pedantically.
A similar lack of subtlety pervades the oversimplified screenplay by Matt Rager, who also collaborated with Franco on his adaptations of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. The film has charisma and ambition, even if it’s missing a consistent sense of narrative urgency.
To a certain extent, In Dubious Battle shares the same feisty and resilient attitude as its characters, and also shares the ability to be admired more for effort than execution. Still, as a defiant working-class call to action, the result lacks the texture and depth of Steinbeck’s original. In the social-media age, it hardly feels worthy of a hashtag.
Rated R, 110 minutes.