Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
When he played James Dean in a career-making cable movie, James Franco found a way to be uncannily like that grotesque/sexy 1950s actor while also remaining true to something distinctive within himself. As Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in Howl, a lifeless hodgepodge by documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Franco is unconvincing as this lovable sage and tireless self-promoter; he labors to replicate the insistent cadences of Ginsberg’s voice but this is only imitation, something an actor might do at a party. Franco’s Ginsberg sits in front of a tape recorder for most of the film, giving a long interview about his life and work (Gus Van Sant executive produced, so this device is imported from the lazy Milk school of biopics), and there are recreations of Ginsberg’s largely unrequited love for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady that look like those ghastly Vanity Fair black and white photo spreads where hot young actors dress up and pose as bygone icons. We see pictures of the wild, dirty-eyed, messy nebbish Ginsberg and then cut back to sleepy-eyed, studly Franco wearing a well-clipped hipster beard and clean clothes; the disconnect between actor and character is comic, and when Franco reads the titular poem, any dramatic force he creates is destroyed by cut-away shots to laughably impressed beatnik extras. Burdened by very obvious animation illustrations by Eric Drooker and star-heavy, prosaic recreations of an obscenity trial, Howl would have been far better off as a straight documentary about Ginsberg and his best-known poem.
Opens September 24