Credit: Venice Film Festival

In Dubious Battle

At the rate James Franco is bringing literary masterworks to the screen, lazy high school sophomores may not even need to open a book to ace their reading lists by 2019. Dubious, his fourth Great American Novel adaptation in less than four years (after squeezing a Cormac McCarthy feature between two William Faulkners), offers a faithfully earnest rendering of John Steinbeck’s classic Great Depression tale. Perhaps too faithful: It’s almost unsettling to watch Franco — the mercurial movie star who placed guesting on General Hospital and hosting the Oscars on the same inscrutable arc of performance art — play it so straight, as a fiery agitator rousing California fruit pickers to strike against poor wages and working conditions.

As a director, at least, he has the advantage of maxing out his iPhone contacts list, stacking the supporting cast with the likes of Ed Harris, Vincent D’Onofrio, Robert Duvall, Sam Shepard, Selena Gomez, Nat Wolff, and Josh Hutcherson. (Blink fast and you’ll miss Zach Braff.) For all its noble intentions, though, the movie struggles to transcend broad outlines: Its characters are strictly symbols, timeworn archetypes of good and evil as threadbare and familiar as the artfully faded calicos and denim on their backs. B–

In Dubious Battle
  • Movie
  • 110 minutes