Certain moments in history, particularly the repressed, scandalized era of the 1950s in the United States, appear to be more exciting than they actually are when translated to film. Good Night, and Good Luck, Far From Heaven, and Pleasantville are just a few examples of how a filmmaker is extremely hard-pressed to make the fifties appear noteworthy beyond the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, I Love Lucy, and the emergence of Elvis. The trial surrounding Allen Ginsberg's then controversial work of poetry, Howl and Other Poems, serves as the basis for Howl, another such example of a film set in the expurgative decade of Eisenhower that struggles to be compelling.
As the prologue of the film explains, Howl intermixes elements of illustrations from the poem itself with court transcripts from the case and interviews with Allen Ginsberg, leaving literally no room for any type of artistic license or creative interpretation. The film could have just as easily been billed as a documentary. Perhaps the sole benefit of the joint writing and directing efforts of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman is that it gave James Franco as Allen Ginsberg the opportunity to prove, once and for all, that he is capable of being more than just a Judd Apatow lackey.
It is no difficult feat to see how much Franco invested in embodying the persona of Ginsberg--from his speech to his physical mannerisms to his perpetually abstruse facial expression. In comparison to some of the other heavyweight actors in the film, like Jeff Daniels and Mary-Louise Parker, Franco unquestionably overshadows everyone else. This includes Jon Hamm, who I suppose is inclined to take any role where he can dress and act similarly to Don Draper.
The fundamental problem with Howl is that the premise for it is too broad. It tries simultaneously to focus on the trial that took place as a result of City Lights Bookstore publishing Ginsberg's poetry, but also Ginsberg's extremely storied personal life. In conjunction with these two incredibly dense subject matters, Howl also attempts to add the poem itself, "Howl," into the mix by incorporating it mainly unsuccessfully with scenes that the filmmakers felt were apropos.
Primarily, the only items one can really take away after seeing Howl is that notoriety often shrouds talent and that James Franco is actually quite adept at playing bisexual, sexually confused, or gay men from the past (I'm using Milk and James Dean as references).