HOWLStarring James Franco, Jon Hamm
Directed by Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
By all accounts, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s life was like his writing: rebellious, funny, and incisive. Howl, the highly anticipated quasi-biopic about the controversy surrounding Ginsberg’s most famous book of poems, attempts to pay tribute to its subject’s legacy. Unfortunately, it just can’t get past the roadblock that is its star, James Franco.
The story unfolds in non-linear fashion, bouncing between four distinct eras in the poet’s life: his student days at Columbia University; his debut live performance of “Howl” in 1955; the 1957 obscenity trial for his first published collection, Howl and Other Poems; and as the subject of an interview later in his life (the bulk of which narrates the film).
Franco’s take on the elder Ginsberg is restrained and relatively believable, unlike the hammy exuberance that threatens to derail the scenes surrounding the poet’s debut performance. Here, Franco seems to be doing an impression of Ginsberg, and a bad one at that. It doesn’t help that large sections of the actor’s reading are illustrated with an extended animated sequence. Poetry’s purpose is to evoke images. Someone else’s literal, visual translation is unnecessary and annoying.
It’s telling that the film’s most dynamic and interesting moments — the obscenity trial — don’t feature Franco at all. Instead, Jon Hamm and David Strathairn go toe-to-toe as opposing council, fully exposing the ridiculous nature of such censorship hearings. There’s an extra jolt of fun seeing the host of high-profile actors, from Jeff Daniels to Mary-Louise Parker, in cameos as experts testifying for or against Howl’s literary merit.
Ginsberg’s life is rich with cinematic possibility, but writers-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman sacrifice their subject for camera tricks and art-house indulgence that never feel genuine. If Ginsberg’s Howl was about a generation crying out, this Howl is a strangled whimper. —Andrea Warner