The year of James Franco continues with Howl, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s new biopic about Allen Ginsberg and his titular landmark beat poem. The poem defined part of a generation, not just Ginsberg (Franco), but all of the usual suspects: Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Neal Cassady. This film is not exactly a defining moment of anything, past or present, but it offers a compelling peek at an important point in time.
Howl the film is told just as poetically as “Howl” the poem was recited, unspooling in four or five commingling strands. These threads skillfully braid together the tales of Ginsberg as a young man looking for his poetic voice with his pals Kerouac and Cassady, Ginsberg the poet finding his voice and Ginsberg the mighty, giving an interview post-“Howl” to an unnamed interviewer.
It’s all hung loosely around the dual framing devices of the 1957 San Francisco obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publisher of Howl and other Poems, and the first recitation of the poem at Six Gallery in October 1955. Wild animation, under the direction of John Hays, connects the dots of the disparate hallucinatory images of Ginsberg’s words.
Despite being the most elaborately planned segment of the film, and the one that boasts most of its star power (Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Jeff Daniels and David Strathairn), the trial segment is also the most inconsequential and cumbersome strand of the piece, making stilted, unemotional legal points (probably taken directly from court transcripts) that don’t even rise to the drama of the second half of a Law & Order episode.
But that’s all right. If you didn’t know the outcome of the court case – that is, whether “public decency” prevailed – then obviously there would never have been a film about it in the first place. The film is about the creation of the poem, and even the creation of Ginsberg himself. In a broader sense, it’s about the creation of the beat generation and those themes all work well.
Franco has come a long way from his Freaks and Geeks days as the eternally wasted Daniel, even if Ginsberg’s outer character isn’t a death-defying vertical leap upward in comparison. It’s not as amusing a portrayal of Ginsberg as David Cross’ in I’m Not There, but the younger Ginsberg wasn’t quite as generously eccentric as he was later in life. There is clearly nuance in Franco’s performance that you wouldn’t have thought possible until recently, though. It didn’t even appear possible as long ago as Pineapple Express, and certainly not while watching him squint his way through the Spider-Man movies. His career path is a genuinely perplexing one: Is he a modern day Montgomery Clift or merely a new Tony Curtis, fitting a few gems into an otherwise unremarkable filmography? Watching for the answer, however, is worth it.