Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's mostly whiffed docudrama makes the influential poem by Allen Ginsberg (Franco) seem dull, ordinary, pedestrian instead of pioneering. The film crosscuts between the first reading of Howl at San Francisco's Six Gallery in 1955; the obscenity trial that resulted from its publication; a mock interview in which the writer recalls pertinent moments in his life, such as his relationship with Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit); and some animated sequences that visualize the four-part composition.
It's an ineffectual mix: Franco, too hipster-primped by half, does little more than mimic Ginsberg's squeaky tenor cadences. And the steam he builds up while reading the poem (a very good vocalization) is undercut by both ill-timed reaction shots of an overly adoring audience and the too-literal cartoon interludes. (Supercommunist pamphlets distributed in Union Square? We can do that!) The trial, meanwhile, brings on the guest celebs, Judgment at Nuremberg--style, with Mary-Louise Parker as a prudish witness and Jon Hamm as a progressive legal eagle. That's right: Don Draper is the rock-solid voice of reason. Funny, then, that overemphatic prosecutor Ralph McIntosh (David Strathairn) gets the film's most resonant line. Referring to Ginsberg's poem as "sensitive bullshit" (itself a phrase from Howl), he also offers an inadvertently pointed critique of the very movie we're watching. A Beat Generation biopic that makes you sympathize with the Man? That's just unholy.
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Cast and crew