Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film “Howl” is based on Allen Ginsberg’s seminal and potentially unlawful diatribe against the state of society in the 1950s.
The poem by the same name was written in three parts, as is the film. They include a biopic of Ginsberg (a stunning James Franco); a legal drama regarding the obscenity lawsuit brought against the poem’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti; and an illustrated version of the work itself, perhaps the most epic poem since Homer’s “Odyssey.”
Franco absolutely nails Ginsberg. His characterization is flawless, despite looking nothing like the author, and Jon Hamm and David Strathairn are fantastic in the roles of opposing counsel in the obscenity trial. Bob Balaban is notably understated as the trial’s judge, and Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels’ brief cameos as witnesses for the prosecution are high points.
Much can be said about the illustrations accompanying Franco’s recitation of “Howl;” they are as literal as can be, but it is a shrewd choice as many audience members may not have been exposed to the poem before.
The film’s most egregious flaw comes with its pacing. It is inexplicably slow at times, particularly during the reading of the poem, but it never manages to become truly dull.
The sheer intensity of the performances easily compensates for any lackluster pacing, and dramatization of the obscenity trial is staggering, not only for the actors participating but for the importance of the outcome.
“Howl” has its flaws, but they are not insurmountable.
It is a beautiful, heartfelt film.
Sarah B. Pilchick may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rating: 3/4 stars
Released: Oct. 22
Starring: James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm
Directed By: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
MPAA Rating: Unrated