What it's about:
During the Great Depression, a pair of activists involve themselves in the struggles of desperate workers by getting them to strike for fair wages.
What we thought:
In Dubious Battle is hardly the Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden or Of Mice and Men in the canon of great novels by premier American writer, John Steinbeck, as it is known for concentrating far more on its message than on its story or characters. At least, that seems to be the general consensus. I admit, I haven't read it or any of Steinbeck's novels (he's always been near the top of my must read list but I still haven't gotten round to him) so I certainly can't compare the novel to the film but, based purely on the evidence on display here, it's hard to argue with that consensus.
Interestingly enough, In Dubious Battle hits South African cinemas on the same day as American Pastoral, and the two films complement each other rather nicely. They do tell distinctly different stories, set in very different times, but in almost every other respect they mirror one another. Both films are based on classic American novels, both deal with the American Dream (albeit from opposite sides) and both are directed by their lead actors who turn in ambitious, heartfelt work but are ultimately sunk by biting off more than they can chew.
It's not hard to see what drew the Steinbeck semi-classic to James Franco; not only is he a well-known bibliophile but at a time when America is ruled by a narcissistic billionaire whose main aim seems to to make him and his fellow billionaires even richer, this tale of the working classes being exploited by the super-rich no doubt struck a particularly poignant chord with his unapologetically liberal world view. The world depicted in In Dubious Battle is basically Bernie Sanders' nightmare scenario writ large – which is all the more frightening as this world is one that America was supposed to have left behind nearly a century ago.
It's hard not to be drawn into the politics at the heart of the film, as it makes a poignant case for protecting the rights of workers by putting constraints on those in power but its sympathetic, heartfelt message doesn't quite make up for how inert the film is dramatically.
While it would be easy to simply write off Franco's taking the charismatic lead role as your usual bout of celebrity vanity but he does a fine job with a role that does actually seem tailored to him. Similarly, Natt Wolf (Paper Towns, The Fault in Our Stars) impresses as the character who is really at the heart of the film: a hopeful young dreamer who gets drawn into the ugliness of what revolution actually requires. Sadly, the two leads are the only remotely interesting characters in the film, which means that most of the rest of the excellent cast are wasted on characters that are either under-written or under-used. The female members of the cast fair especially badly as Selena Gomez in woefully miscast as a pragmatic young mother and the usually magnetic Analeigh Tipton is left with nothing more to do than look badly put upon.
Without fully realised characters, the film never manages to fully connect emotionally, which means that its important, powerful message never feels as fully realized as it should do. Further, while Franco does have a very fine eye as a director, the general muddiness of the film's visuals may ground the story in gritty reality but it only adds to the overall effect of the film being overly dour and dreary. The story it tells is no laughing matter but a lighter touch would have both made the film more palatable and ensured that its more emotional moments hit harder – instead it becomes hard not to get numbed by its cumulative earnest self-importance.
Like American Pastoral, though, for all of In Dubious Battle's many, many faults, it's hard to truly take against it. Call it vanity if you want but I, for one, appreciate that James Franco continues to push himself as a filmmaker with something to say. He has yet to make a truly great film but there's enough of worth in In Dubious Battle to suggest that he may well do so yet.