Let’s skirt some basics of critique for a moment and settle on the fact that a great deal of Howl is simply James Franco, who portrays Ginsberg pretty calmly and succinctly even attempting to ape the man’s cadences while speaking, reading a poem with cartoons for visuals. And while the cartoons here interspersed with a live action film in an interview mode, flashback or courtroom, the feature’s barely an hour and twenty minutes long. That alone isn’t grounds for dismissal, but considering Howl ostensibly moves beyond the trial and attempts to chronicle Ginsberg’s adult life, it seems there may have been a few things left out.
It’s actually difficult figuring if we should object to the brevity with which Ginsberg’s life is treated or if the cartoon schtick is so awful and warrants our disdain. Maybe both. But with such a vivacious, American figure, it shouldn’t have been difficult to bolster the story a bit.
Almost a surprising as these other transgressions is that the actual trial doesn’t seem to constitute too much of the film’s run time. So, it doesn’t even seem that the whole deal focuses on even that. When viewers are in the courtroom, though, it’s only for a brief moment. And unfortunately, the witness called are all kind of repetitive. Granted, different points of view need to be voiced in a case of this nature, but it all seems pretty random, as does Jon Hamm and Mary-Louise Parker being in the same film.
The stars of Mad Men and Weeds, respectively, both turn in satisfactory performances detached from characters we’ve all come to know relatively well. Parker even manages to wear clothes. It’s crazy and might actually account for the most surprising moment in Howl.
Negative junk aside, Howl will probably remain required viewing for those of us fancying ourselves something akin to literary types. It’s not a waste of an hour and change to see this monster, but afterwards, we’re all set to wonder if we would have been better off just re-reading the poem.