Over the past few years, James Franco has turned himself into Hollywood’s most notoriously over-the-top thespian. Running from movie shoot to Master’s lecture and back again, the man who was once considered nothing more than a James Dean-lookalike doll has purposely formed a semi-pretentious persona.
While he’s maintained a bit of a goofball swagger thanks to shamelessly self-conscious appearances on General Hospital, 30 Rock and movies like Pineapple Express, every time he announces a new side project, he peels back a new layer of what he claims is his real, overly studious sponge of a personality. Following his career is kind of like watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. You don’t quite understand the point of it, but for some unknown reason, you’re desperate to know more.
Franco’s new film, Howl comes across as an unintentional, nicely-lit simile for his mega-multitasking lifestyle. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as successful. Like it’s star (on and off-screen), Howl tries to be one too many things at once, both in tone and content. Alternating between coffee house literal illustrations of Ginsberg’s most infamous work (also the title) and real-life recreations of his life (and trial that would decide the poem’s fate), its real mishmash of a movie. And not in an awesome, Dadaist kind of way.
Although Franco is pretty much pitch-perfect as Ginsberg (he’s got the ears and needless hand-talking and everything), the scenes that don’t feature his bespectacled face are fairly lifeless. Jon Hamm, while totally dapper-looking, pretty much phones in his performance (as freedom-of-speech fighter/lawyer Jake Ehrlich) – from his desk at Sterling Cooper. David Stratharin and Jeff Daniels fare a bit better, as Ehrlich’s courtroom opponent and a particularly persnickety anti-Ginsberg professor respectively, but their roles are far too underdeveloped to be notable.
The main problem with Howl is that it openly contradicts its supposed reason for being. While it obviously attempts to argue against censorship and needless literal analysis of nonlinear creative works, it also tries to shove one interpretation of the poem down your throat. Between Ginsberg’s intricate explanations of what inspired him to write specific sections of the poem (his mother’s mental problems, his man-love for fellow beat poet, Jack Kerouac, among others) and the too-direct animations of them, we hardly have time to form our own opinions of the now infamous poem. It’s Grade 12 English all over again. If you want to make it through, you’re going to have to accept whatever the teacher – or in this case, director – tells you.
At one point in the movie, Franco (as Ginsberg) states that Howl is simply a “promotion of frankness.” That may be true of the real-life work, but as a film, Howl just comes across as a “promotion of Franco-ness.” B