In Dubious Battle (2017)

11:37 AM

Fight For What You Believe In. 
 In Dubious Battle is directed by James Franco who also happens to star in the film (127 Hours, Spring Breakers). Alongside Franco is Nat Wolff (Paper Towns, Stuck In Love), Vincent D'Onofrio (Men in Black, Jurassic World), Selena Gomez (Spring Breakers, The Fundamentals of Caring), Sam Shepard (Black Hawk Down, The Right Stuff), Robert Duvall (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) and a string of other A-listers who have cameo sized roles. "An activist gets caught up in the labor movement for farm workers in California during the 1930s". James Franco has directed a ridiculous number of films but no-one cares about them - is In Dubious Battle about to change that or is it a waste of Steinbeck's material?


I hate to say it but In Dubious Battle is just another throwaway film directed by Franco - prior to writing this review, I had a look at Franco's catalogue and he has so far released 13 different films as a director and has another 8 that are either completed or in post-production. The thing is though, nobody has heard or cares about any of these films. I feel like Franco is just trying so hard and hopes that eventually one of these will earn him some acclaim and attention. It is also important to note that Franco stars in almost every film he directs - he provides most of the work he actually get. I wouldn't have watched  or even heard of In Dubious Battle if it wasn't for Selena Gomez featuring in the cast - I am a big Selena Gomez fan and I have been following her since 2007 so I like to see what creative directions she goes. In Dubious Battle is a meh film that I don't recommend but it does have some silver linings. 

A common theme within In Dubious Battle is that in most areas, there are some really great moments and I can see glimmers of a great film. The cast is one example of this - I believe that everyone in a main role has some really good and strong moments but also some much weaker moments. The cast as a whole just felt like they were playing dress up - I wasn't fully convinced by any of them. Especially those who had like one scene - they were definitely only here for the paycheque and were not committed to the role at all. Nat Wolff and James Franco are the leads - they actually don't have much chemistry and I don't believe them to be friends or even truly like each other as the film rushes the first act. Wolff is ok but his accent is definitely uneven - sometimes it's much thicker and other times, there is no accent at all. However, Wolff's monologue at the end of the film was delivered very well. James Franco is also ok - this is definitely one big vanity project for him so I'm going to restrain myself from praising him. Franco did a solid job but also had accent issues - this role and performance is definitely going to be one that will be forgotten in years to come. I say this is a vanity project because the film is mostly an ensemble about people working together but something tragic happens to Franco's character in the final 5 minutes and then there is a 5 minute monologue about how important and great Franco's character was/is. The film would have worked much better if it left it as a collective rather than trying to praise an individual - who just happened to also be the director of the film. I also found both of the leads quite unlikeable which didn't help with their performances. 

I don't want to come across as biased but I think Selena Gomez has one of the best performances in this film. Even though I think Gomez landed herself with a pretty meh role in a meh film, she did impress when on-screen. This film required one of Gomez's most challenging scenes of her career yet - giving birth. Gomez is 24 and has not experienced this and I have to applaud her because I was convinced she was giving birth and I thought she did a really good job. This scene though is the most interesting thing Gomez gets to do the whole film as her character does not want to get involved in the action and actually wants a 'simple' life and is happy for nothing to change. I researched the character of Lisa London to find out whether it was Gomez who was lifeless or dull or whether it was the character and I was relieved to find out Lisa London is passive, listless and is reduced to little more than daydreams and basic bodily functions in the original novel. I actually think Gomez did a very good job of conveying this and this is yet another strong and promising performance from her. The second performance that was one of the strongest was from Vincent D'Onofrio - I do think he tried a little too hard at times but he definitely came across as the most passionate about change and I believed him. It's a shame that these two pretty great performances found themselves in a film that will (and deserves to be) overlooked and forgotten. 

Now back to the bad - there are some performances in this film that are just horrendous. I briefly mentioned that D'Onofrio sometimes tries too hard but he is nothing compared to Ed Harris who I found obnoxious as Joy - he was really on a different wave length to the rest of the cast. His performance may not have been so horrible if everyone else was as energetic and over the top as him but for now, Harris really made a fool of himself. Also, don't be tricked by this film's 'great' cast because most of them couldn't be bothered to spend more than one day on the set. 

I haven't read the original novel of In Dubious Battle but I have read Of Mice and Men so I have an idea of how John Steinbeck writes - he is an acclaimed and very famous writer. However, In Dubious Battle does not do him justice at all - I think the script is terrible and really oversimplified. Matt Rager is responsible for adapting the script and funny enough, he writes most of Franco's films. Rager manages to lose any character development and any symbolism or key themes that Steinbeck probably buried within his novel. There is the typical Steinbeck convention of 'The American Dream' - Gomez delivers a monologue on this subject. I will give Rager some praise though as there were quite a few lines towards the start of the film that I really did appreciate and enjoy - they had close parallels to what is going on in the world right now:
  • 'Chance to fight for something, I wanna fight for something'
  • 'We got these guys working together'
  • 'We're trying to change things for millions of people'
  • 'About Lisa's kid and what kind of world he's gonna grow up in'
  • 'If you don't make trouble then nothing's gonna change'
  • 'People wanna know that their lives matter - that they matter'
I think all of these lines are really nice and are the glimmers of greatness in the script department. The funny thing is Franco and Rager wouldn't have known what the world would be going through in 2017 when making this film so I suppose its just lucky that the film comes across as timely. However, these 6 lines are about as far as this film goes - it doesn't earn my respect for saying something important when it wasn't a key and heavy film throughout - mostly just the first act actually. I could go through each line and explain how it is important to today but I don't want to get too political but I've told you the lines now, you don't even need to see the film to hear them.

The story of In Dubious Battle also doesn't have much weight to it - I don't know if this is because Rager really simplified the plot like he did the lines but I thought things happened a little too fast - especially during the first act. The film could have spent more time developing the leading duo but instead, they straight away head to a farm to try and start a strike. Then when they get there Lisa has her baby and after that, nothing much more interesting happens - there are a few deaths  and strikes but the film just didn't get it right. I don't think tension was effectively built - we didn't get a good enough glimpse of how deprived these workers were and we weren't connected enough to characters to care enough when they reached their end. I also thought the plot lacked conclusion - the characters really didn't get anyway from the start of the film to the end - they just agree to carry on fighting. This means that this isn't a story of inspirational heroes, its a story of fighters who are fighting a losing battle. We then find out at the end of the film that eventually, worker's rights did improve - why didn't we get a story of when those rights were put in place? Well probably because Steinbeck didn't choose to write that story. The film began with a very fast pace but it then got slower and slower - as a little anecdote, I could use 'The Tortoise and the Hare' as the film's pace started off very fast but got tired out - a better film would have took its time to tell the important story. 

Finally, the cinematography - In Dubious Battle has a pretty promising location - an average cinematographer would be able to get some decent shots of the forestry but for some reason, there were hardly any aesthetically pleasing shots in this film - the location was definitely not made the most of. However, like everything in this film - there were glimmers of good shots. For example, when Lisa and Jim are messing around in the field - this was very nice. I also thought the lighting was actually pretty irritating - I feel like it was meant to be dark for some reason but that reason was just not very clear, it just made the scenes pretty hard to watch as you couldn't see what was going on or connect with the characters.

Sadly, In Dubious Battle is not a good film, despite it having all the qualities of a potential awards contender. The film is pretty slow and sometime turns quite an important and interesting subject matter into a dull and slow film with characters we don't care too much about. The performances are very uneven - Gomez and D'Onofrio are definitely the strongest. For every aspect of this film, there are glimmers of goodness but those glimmers remain just that - maybe if James Franco made less films and cared more about what he was making, he would pay a closer attention to detail and quality? In Dubious Battle is a mess that I am pretty dubious about recommending. 


43
/100

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