What are people saying about HOWL?

Seems like James Franco has been all over the place in the last few days, talking about, among other things, HOWL, the new film by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman in which the actor stars as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Here he is discussing his love of poetry with Vanity Fair. There he is explaining his love of soap operas to New York magazine. Here he is defending his tendency to play roles based on himself on screen in Movieline. And there he is getting rapped for his shabby grad-school duds by old-school gossipist Cindy Adams: “His black coat was littered with light brown hair,” she sniffed in her New York Post column on Wednesday.

Franco’s HOWL costar Jon Hamm, who plays defense attorney Jake Ehrlich, has been getting his share of breathless, mad-about-the-man press as well, as you might imagine. (Indicative headline: “Howl Movie Title Clearly a Reference to Jon Hamm’s Hotness.”) And the film’s directors were dutifully making the rounds as well, explaining the film’s years-long evolution from straight documentary to surreal narrative-animated mashup.

So let’s just say that expectations for HOWL, which was the Sundance Film Festival’s hot-ticket opener on Thursday night, were not low. And? So?

The film’s early reviews were decidedly mixed. But as of Friday, Franco was raking in the raves. MTV calls the movie “a bit stiff” but labels Franco’s performance “soaring.” “Franco’s full-bodied portrayal is often mesmerizing to behold, never more so then when he’s reading from the seminal work. It’s in these extended readings, which employ the majority of the film’s fanciful animated sequences, that the film truly takes flight,” writes Josh Horowitz. “Put simply, Ginsberg’s words are a treasure to savor and Franco does them great service, abetted by the surreal imagery Epstein and Friedman have conjured up.”

Blogger Marshall Fine calls HOWL “an imaginative and thoughtful work, one that illuminates a fascinating moment of cultural history and one of America’s great writers,” before questioning its commercial appeal. “Whether it will appeal to a mass audience — or even an art house crowd — is another question altogether,” he notes.

And while New York Post critic Kyle Smith quickly “grew bored” with both the film and its namesake poem and casts a doubtful eye on its prospects, Showbiz 411′s Roger Friedman calls HOWL “a small but gem-like film that should have a nice life in art houses before being showcased on HBO or the like.”

Friedman calls the actors “superb,” writing, “For one thing, Franco could not be better. He is spot-on brilliant as Ginsberg. Franco’s so good in fact that after listening to him for 90 minutes, you’re surprised it’s not him singing at the end of the film but Ginsberg himself. It’s a performance that will come back in awards season next fall.”