James Franco delivers as the “fat-breasted, bald, bearded homosexual"

James Franco in HOWL, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

HOWL is not an Allen Ginsberg biopic but something at once trickier and more modest: a celebratory adaptation of his most famous poem. For their first fiction feature, the veteran documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (THE CELLULOID CLOSET, PARAGRAPH 175) have recruited a lineup of top-tier collaborators: an all-star cast led by James Franco, cinematographer Ed Lachman, production designer Therese DePrez, composer Carter Burwell. As you’d expect, HOWL looks and sounds terrific. But the prudent insistence on documentary fidelity — the film was in fact conceived as a doc — is restrictive, even perverse. Just about every line you hear comes from HOWL itself, or is adapted from interviews that Ginsberg gave after its publication and from court records of the 1957 obscenity trial against City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti that ensured the poem’s immortality.

Alternating among several distinct approaches  — a black-and-white recreation of the poem’s first public reading, Ginsberg monologuing to an unseen interviewer, cameo-rich lit-crit courtroom scenes, animation set to poetry — this handsome, tasteful film seems too inhibited. It evokes all too well the Eisenhower-era placidity that Ginsberg’s work ripped through with relish.

Some of that joy and energy, thankfully, can be found in Franco’s performance. There were doubts that the face of Gucci could embody the man that the narrator of Saul Bellow’s Him With His Foot in His Mouth called a “fat-breasted, bald, bearded homosexual in smeared goggles.” But his young Ginsberg is wholly credible — Franco nails the poet’s impish charm, his infectious openness, his nasal intonations. The most effective scenes are of the San Francisco reading, when the work itself is front and center, and there are no distractions (but for a few awed reaction shots) from Franco’s incantatory delivery. By contrast, the busy, borderline-corny animated segments, meant to evoke Ginsberg’s bebop rhythms, are merely swamped by the poem’s transcendental intensity. Imperfect as it is, HOWL the movie does what it sets out to do: it reaffirms the greatness of HOWL the poem.