The best part of Howl is “Howl.” Tying for second is the obscenity hearing against publisher and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a gripping and maddening affair that put words on trial, and the sometimes-electrifying, sometimes-confusing, but always quite cool animation that accompanies “Howl” as it’s periodically recited in voiceover. Coming in last? Allen Ginsberg, the poem’s author—a kinda crucial element to making Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film soar. Ginsberg is portrayed by James Franco, a sudden and insistent Renaissance man, and though there’s nothing really wrong with his performance (other than the thick beard and glasses that make him look like he’s play-acting), there’s not much right about it, either. It just lies there, and its inertia inevitably renders the film a big meh.
Howl, so very Sundance, begins in black and white in San Francisco 1955 as Ginsberg reads his epic four-part work at an open mic. (Tons of smoking and horn-rims make sure you know it’s the past.) It quickly jumps to 1957, when Ferlinghetti (Andrew Rogers) is charged with obscenity because of the poem’s naughty words and, as one literary expert testifies, the feeling that “you’re going through the gutter when you read that stuff.” Meanwhile, in New York, Ginsberg is granting an interview, talking about the hows and whys of “Howl” (“I wrote [it] for Jack,” he says, meaning Kerouac), his time in a mental institution, and his homosexual relationships (or lack thereof). These scenes are interspersed with white-hot-bright animation that attempts to illustrate the poem’s abstractions.
The result is that the film often either feels like it’s trying too hard or isn’t trying much at all. The only time it’s just right is when it focuses on the trial, with Jon Hamm playing Ferlinghetti’s lawyer (and giving a terrific closing argument about free speech and the impact of the judge’s decision) and David Strathairn as the prosecutor, his character comically lunk-headed as he peppers the witnesses about the meaning of “Howl”’s words (“Now, do you understand most of the words in this book? What are ‘angel-headed hipsters?’”). The grace of the defense attorney’s monologue as well as the trial’s outcome (spoiler alert: Free speech wins) will have you cheering; footage of the real Ginsberg singing one of his mournful poems during the closing credits will make you ache. The rest, whether flashy or dull, suggests that viewers would be better served rereading “Howl” than watching a movie about it.