It's always tough to be the first film in a festival. And at Sundance, the conventional wisdom I've always heard from veterans is that the oepning night film is rarely good.
Let's just say conventional wisdom held true tonight.
Before the film, Robert Redford talked about the way this project worked its way through various arms of the Sundance Labs on its way to the screen, and at one point, it was supposed to be a documentary. I'm puzzled why the decision was made to shift the project to a narrative feature, since the end result is dramatically inert, a showcase for James Franco's technically adept but entirely unilluminating impression of Allen Ginsberg.
For those not familiar with their hipster history, Ginsberg wrote a four-part poem called "HOWL" which was published in book form by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1955. As a result, Ferlinghetti was put on trial for the distribution of obscenity, and a chunk of the film deals with that trial. Jon Hamm stands in for the defense, David Strathairn is the prosecution, and Bob Balaban plays the judge. The courtroom scenes are all carefully constructed from transcripts, but despite the subject matter, these sequences are all surprisingly sedate. You'd think that a trial about obscenity in the '50s would have been explosive, but based on what you see here, you'd be wrong.
The most ambitious element of the film is also the biggest misfire, an attempt to give animated life to the carnival cacophony of Ginsberg's language. What might have seemed edgy or outrageous in 1955 seems almost quaint when made literal today. Cartoon copulations and seascapes of giant penii get dull after about the second time you see them, particularly when they seem like such ham-handed misinterpretations of Ginsberg's original intent. At this point, Adult Swim is more genuinely subculture than any of what we see here.
The final thread in the film is the stuff with Franco playing Ginsberg, and when the real Ginsberg makes a spoken word appearance in the film's closing credits, it allows you to admire how closely Franco comes with his cadence and with the pitch of his voice, and with the way he reads Ginsberg's work in the performance scenes. Beyond that, though, he's utterly stranded by the screenplay, which offers no insight into the man beyond his public self. Much of the movie has Franco being interviewed, and so he talks theory and philosophy and personal history, but that's all it is. Talk. The whole freedom of making this a narrative feature would be to show us things that no transcript or interview could accomplish. Hell, we're shown a few glimpses of Peter, the man who became his lifelong partner, but he never even delivers a line of dialogue. Same with the stand-ins for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy. Why show them in passing but never use them as characters?
"HOWL" ultimately feels like a wasted opportunity, and I can't imagine there's much commercial potential here, even with Franco and Hamm. I have huge respect for filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Their film "The Times Of Harvey Milk" is one of the greatest documentaries I've ever seen, one of the films that first kick-started my interest in the potential of documentaries in general. This time out, though, they just never found their way in.
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