"There is no Beat Generation ... just a bunch of guys trying to get published" Allen Ginsberg (James Franco) in HOWL.
The opening film at Sundance is a prestigious position to be in: Robert Redford introduces the film, stars are in attendance, and as a result it can be difficult to score tickets. This year was no different with people lining the sidewalk to the theater holding signs asking for extra tickets. However, if you look back at the opening night film for the past few years, you can see that it has never ended up being the most buzzed-about film at the festival: Riding Giants (2004), Happy Endings (2005), Friends With Money (2006), Chicago 10 (2007), In Bruges (2008), and Mary & Max (2009).
Unfortunately, HOWL is in the same boat. And to paraphrase Ginsberg himself: There is no HOWL ... it's just a bunch of scenes trying to be a movie. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Times of Harvey Milk, The Celluloid Closet) have moved beyond their normal documentary subjects and tackled the dubious task of turning a classic poem into a feature film, and it falls far short for several reasons. It might have been the hot ticket for opening night, but it got Sundance 2010 off to an extreme clunky start.
Howl wants to be three different movies: a dramatization of the court case deciding whether the publication of the poem was obscene or not, reenacted interviews with Ginsberg reflecting on Howl and the trial, and animated segments meant to picture the poem itself. The trouble is that none of them work on their own, and when you mash them together, you just end up with the three cooks who spoiled the soup. Three things that don't work on their own add up to one big thing that becomes triply unengaging.
The court case is bland (although it does provide a few laughs), with Jon Hamm doing his best Don Draper as the defense attorney. The animated segments use very amateurish CGI set to jazz music as a singular vision of the poem ... which just doesn't work at all. Why would you try so hard to illustrate what people picture when they hear or read HOWL? It would be like someone trying to tell you what you should see in your head when you listen to Mozart. The interview segments are the most appealing, but they boil down to Franco basically parroting back recorded conversations between Ginsberg and an unseen journalist.
Ginsberg's personal life is barely touched on in the film, with fleeting glimpses of his job in advertising, his time with Jack Kerouac, or his longtime partner Peter Orlovsky. It was as if the filmmakers decided everything biographical had to be crammed into five minutes of total screentime so the rest of the film could focus on courtroom drama and animation. Or dramatic readings by Ginsberg (in black and white, to boot) of HOWL in coffee shops with extremely excited extras nodding their approval in the audience. To be fair, Franco does a decent job in the role when he's imitating Ginsberg via recordings, but veers off-track in fictionalized moments.
Oddly enough, HOWL began life in the Sundance labs a year ago as a documentary, and that would have been tremendously more engaging. There's a brief scene at the end of the film featuring the actual Ginsberg singing one of his poems, and it makes you ache for more archival footage of the author. Interviews discussing the impact of HOWL, photos, recordings (a vintage recording of Ginsberg reading HOWL aloud was actually discovered in 2007), and more of a background would have been more interesting to watch than this unfortunately clumsy approach to adapting one of the quintessential American poems to film.