“Howl” is a curious combination of fiction film, documentary, animation, and biopic. The famous, eponymous Allen Ginsberg poem that gives the film its title is also its centerpiece. As Ginsberg, James Franco, despite at first seeming miscast, gives a sly, freewheeling performance, and many other Beat Generation icons pass through the maelstrom, including Jack Kerouac (Todd Rotondi) and Peter Orlovski (Aaron Tveit).
The famous 1957 obscenity trial that the poem gave rise to is dramatized and reaches its bewildering climax when the chief prosecutor, played by David Strathairn, admits he doesn’t really understand what “Howl,” a neo-Whitmanesque cri de coeur that defined a generation, is all about.
The language of that poem, which periodically pours out from the screen, is the best thing in the movie. The worst thing: the interpolated animated sequences that are meant to “illustrate” the poem but which can’t begin to compete with the imagery evoked by Ginsberg’s words. Grade: B (Unrated.)
More Monitor movie reviews: