Film Review: Howl

Riveting performance from James Franco dominates as iconic Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg does battle with intrusive animation and static talking-head scenes. There’s no rhyme nor reason for this ill-conceived concept.

Allen Ginsberg was best known for being (not in this order) the gay, bespectacled, hirsute, infamous mid-century poet/provocateur who epitomized the rebellious, bohemian lifestyle and whose first published poem, “Howl,” provoked a well-documented obscenity court case.

His heralded movie-star good looks aside, everywhere-man James Franco does a mesmerizing job of embodying the nerdy, rotund Ginsberg, especially evoking his creative energy and bravado and a determination to live the life that suited him. No doubt the lure of Franco as Ginsberg will initially attract fans of both, but the fever will be quickly quelled.

Howl intercuts scenes of Ginsberg giving a reading of “Howl” and talking into a tape recorder for an unseen interviewer with the re-enacted San Francisco court case that pitted defendant Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City Lights published the poem, against government authorities who charged him with disseminating obscene material.

Ginsberg’s life is primarily recounted in interviews and voice-overs. His mother was in and out of mental institutions, a fact suggesting the origins of the son’s instabilities. He left Columbia University and forged friendships with a variety of men, including the mentally ill man for whom “Howl” was written, and such stars of the Beat Generation as Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and Neal Cassidy (Jon Prescott), the largely straight ladies man with whom Ginsberg had a dalliance. In later years, Ginsberg finally hooked up with Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit), who became his longtime companion.

The court sequence has San Francisco prosecuting attorney Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) doing battle with Ferlinghetti defense lawyer Jake Ehrlich (Jon Hamm) as Judge Clayton Horn (Bob Balaban) mediates. Various witnesses, including stuffy professor David Kirk (Jeff Daniels) for the prosecution and, for the defense, book critics Luther Nichols (Alessandro Nivola) and Mark Schorer (Treat Williams), also a novelist and biographer, enliven the obscenity debate.

Howl is beautifully acted and its disparate live-action parts hold interest. But it is really three short films: scenes of Ginsberg reading “Howl” and talking to a tape recorder; the court sequences; and loud, disruptive, visually pummeling animation meant to interpret “Howl” but killing it. Intended as the film’s connective tissue, it blows us out of the movie—and the poetry.