Howl is a disappointingly mundane movie about a vibrant, iconoclastic subject. In using Allen Ginsberg’s first and most notorious published poem as a lynchpin for a film about its author, co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet) resort to animation, court transcripts and interviews, avoiding the usual biopic pitfalls but creating a few of their own.
Played by James Franco in a highly magnetic, guileless manner, Ginsberg often appears in the course of various interviews with an unseen journalist, stating that authors should commit to writing and speak to readers the way they speak to their friends – to “write as who you are.” To Ginsberg, the discovery and embracing of his homosexuality was a catalyst for self-examination, which in turn fueled his creative impulses.
There are brief snippets in which we see chapters of Ginsberg’s life re-enacted, such as his affair with fellow poet Peter Orlovsky, or his flirtatious relationships with Beat godheads Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and Neal Cassady (Jon Prescott). Mostly, though, Howl is comprised of Ginsberg telling you about his life, interspersed with long chunks of his epic poem illustrated by animation.
Epstein and Friedman originally conceived of the project as a documentary, then decided to dramatize the material with actors. But the obscenity trial that runs concurrent with Ginsberg’s story, populated by an all-star cast of attorneys and witnesses, is dry, trite drama. It’s The People vs. Larry Flynt, minus Flynt’s outrageousness. Howl does proper justice to Ginsberg’s transporting, free-flowing masterpiece, but you could get the same effect simply by reading the poem, without the elaborate cartoon accompaniment. Franco embodies the spirit of the courageous and disarming writer, and you keep wishing the movie would put the actor to better use. That never happens, though. Howl is a literary adaptation that’s too literal and not cinematic enough. Unlike Ginsberg’s work, it doesn’t soar.
Cast: James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, Todd Rotondi, Jon Prescott.
Writers-directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman.
Producers: Elizabeth Redleaf, Christine Kunewa Walker, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman.
An Oscilloscope Laboratories release. Running time: 90 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema, Intracoastal; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Mizner Park.