James Franco’s In Dubious Battle Promises High Drama and an All-Star Cast

By  · Published on August 29th, 2016

The John Steinbeck adaptation debuts at the Venice Film Festival

(AMBI Group)

The trailer for In Dubious Battle was just released exclusively by Deadline in time for its debut at the Venice Film Festival later this week. James Franco stars in and directs the picture based on the 1936 book of the same name by American author John Steinbeck. Although the book is the lesser-known title in Steinbeck’s unofficial “Dustbowl” trilogy, which includes “Of Mice And Men” and “The Grapes Of Wrath,” it is considered one of his strongest works. Franco is no stranger to literary adaptations, having directed film versions of William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” in 2014 and “The Sound and the Fury” in 2013. This is his first time dealing with a Steinbeck work, and as the trailer shows it is an ambitious dramatic project featuring a stellar ensemble cast.

In Dubious Battle is set in the 1930s and follows a young activist named Jim, played by Nat Wolff (Paper Towns, The Fault in Our Stars), who joins his comrade Mac McLeoud, played by Franco, to aid in assembling a strike for apple pickers in Torgas Valley, California. The trailer opens with the introduction of a “price cut” in wages, which we later learn is a measly “dollar a day.” The piece features the laborers and their families living in poverty, with Mac and Jim looking to empower them to fight for their rights to better pay. We see dangerous encounters between strikers and law enforcement, soapbox speeches by Jim and Mac, and dreamy sequences between Jim and Lisa, played by Selena Gomez.

(AMBI Group)

Gomez plays against type as Lisa, a frumpily dressed but naturally beautiful farm girl who dreams of “a simple, clean life.” It’s a welcome change for the actress whose recent roles include Hotel Transylvania and Spring Breakers, the latter also with Franco. There are a lot of men fighting the good fight in this film, so one would hope that she and the other women are able to play more than just romantic interests. Gomez seems right at home playing a strong-willed farm laborer woman, so that will be interesting to watch regardless. Plus, there is a very intense birthing scene teased in the trailer that could be a chance for Gomez to prove a new set of acting chops.

The story revolves around Jim and his struggles as a man trying to find purpose in his activist work and the challenges he faces along the way. His encounters with the other characters will inform his own growth over the course of the film. The trailer features snapshots of powerful performances by veteran talents including Vincent D’Onofrio, Bryan Cranston, Robert Duvall, Ed Harris, and Sam Shepard. Zach Braff and Josh Hutcherson also make appearances. The cast is large and teeming with talent, and how Franco ties all of their stories and relationships together will be integral to the success of the film.

(AMBI Group)

Although melodramatic in its tone and use of music, the trailer feels very much like other Steinbeck books-turned-movies. Its gritty depiction of the struggles of migrant workers during the Great Depression makes for an interesting historical topic that still resonates today given the political issues surrounding the economy and immigration. We’ll have to wait until we hear from the Venice Film Festival to know how these topics unfold at Franco’s helm, and if the project will match the caliber of its Steinbeck film predecessors.

Franco has had a series of interesting directorial projects lately, including episodes on television series such as Hulu’s 11.22.63 and the upcoming HBO show The Deuce. He’s also been keen helming literary works such as the Faulkner films and 2013’s Bukowski. Earlier this year, Franco was set to direct and star with Russel Crowe on Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” but the project was immediately shelved following its announcement after it was revealed the filmmakers had not yet secured the book rights. This time, Franco has the rights to “In Dubious Battle” and shot the film in time for a film festival release. If done right, it would be a notable piece to add to Franco’s eclectic body of work.

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