Director: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Freidman
Run Time: 85 minutes
2011 is going to belong to James Franco. From his early beginnings in the wonderful Judd Apatow produced Freaks And Geeks, he has proved himself a versatile actor whose star is on the rise whether it is tackling blockbuster franchises like Spider-man, comedy roles in The Pineapple Express or Oscar nominated pictures like Milk. His role as arm chopping Aron Rolston in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours earlier this year has put him firmly in the Hollywood A-list with an Oscar nomination in tow and a chance to host the Academy Awards too. All this and he still finds time to take a PhD in English at Yale and follow in the footsteps of the Coen Brothers and John Hillcoat by adapting a Cormac McCarthy novel, this time the sprawling epic Blood Meridian. You kind of want to hate him, don’t you?
After portraying Rolston and James Dean, Franco this times tackles the character of ’50s Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Throughout its running time, Howl gives snap shots of Ginsberg’s early and later life, from his first meetings with fellow members of the Beat Generation such as Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and long time partner Peter Orlovsky to the obscenity trial over the poem’s material that took place in 1957.
Again, Franco delivers a towering performance as Ginsberg that is every bit as impressive as his turn in 127 Hours but unlikely to garner as much award season hype. He evolves Ginsberg from a shy and nervous man overwhelmed by his peers and uncomfortable with his sexuality to assured and strong by the time he delivers the first reading of Howl in 1955 at the Six Gallery Reading.
Although never sharing any screen time with him, he is backed up by a stellar supporting cast including David Strathairn, Jeff Daniels and Jon Hamm as Perry Mason inspiration Jake Ehrlich. You could be forgiven at times for mistaking Hamm for his Mad Men character, what with the late 1950s setting and a closing argument that seems to have come straight out of the Don Draper book of hard sells.
Veterans of the documentary world but virgins to feature films, directors Epstein and Freidman stick very much to the tricks and techniques likely used before – black and white for flashbacks of early life, grainy footage for interviews, newspaper cuttings and an animation of Howl’s visual imagery (very phallic-heavy imagery). While providing insight into various aspects of Ginsberg’s life, you leave feeling that a slightly longer film could have explored his relationship with other members of the Beat Generation more satisfactorily.
Howl is a good but by no means great film, were it not for Franco’s it would be erring awfully close on the side of cinematic turkey. Thankfully though, he’s fantastic in the role and leaves you eagerly waiting to see what he brings to his next gig.
Oh wait, his next film is Rise Of The Apes, maybe we can wait after all.