First off: James Franco is way too pretty to play beat writer Allen Ginsberg. But he manages to inhabit Ginsberg’s idiosyncratic skin, adopting the incantatory nasal style he used when reading his poetry and the thoughtful intelligence of his interview responses, where sentences feel to rush forth just to get to the next pause. Writer-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman wisely let Franco’s loving performance carry the majority of Howl, a modest biopic that focuses primarily on Ginsberg’s life up to the titular poem and the 1957 obscenity trial that sprung in its wake. The movie feels a little tender-footed and not entirely confident, but that tone complements Ginsberg and the Beats’ cultural significance. It’s a snapshot of a man right before his life and work enter the public domain, which makes Franco’s performance so integral. It’s a subtle, tactful display of acting. Howl won’t teach Beat fans anything they don’t already know, but Franco’s interpretation of Ginsberg offers a curious window into an artist deep in the creative act of distilling his life history into his art’s story.
Director: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Writer: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Producer: Elizabeth Redleaf and Christine K. Walker
Cast: James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Treat Williams, Bob Balaban, Alessandro Nivola, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels and Aaron Tveit