James Franco gives a career-defining performance in this weekend’s limited release, Howl, directed by Oscar winning documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Franco portrays American poet/Beat movement founder Allen Ginsberg, alongside Jon Hamm, Mary Louise-Parker, and Jeff Daniels. Though unlikely to sway commercial audiences due to its funky, unconventional nature, the film provides an innovative spin on contemporary storytelling. Though a slightly premature shot to call, Franco should sweep awards season with this one…

Check out the review below…

The Players:

  • Writers/Directors: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
  • Cast: James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Alessandro Nivola, Mary Louise-Parker, Jeff Daniels
  • Director of Photography: Edward Lachman
  • Producers: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Elizabeth Redleaf, Christine Kunewa Walker
  • Animation Designer: Eric Drooker

The Plot:

Howl follows the young Allen Ginsberg, the poet, counter-culture icon, and founder of the Beat movement. The film centers on his most acclaimed piece of work, “Howl” and interweaves three stories: the infamous 1957 obscenity trial that challenges its content, a series of interviews/flashbacks with Ginsberg, and a slew of animated clips of the poem.

The Good:

  • James Franco: When your protagonist is as iconic as Ginsberg, naturally, the pressure is on to find an actor to portray him as honestly as possible. His thick New York accent, utterly specific mannerisms, bizarre but unrelenting spirit, etc  - James Franco captures the essence of Ginsberg without skipping a beat (…pun intended). Most notably Franco nails Ginsberg’s distinctive, pitchy cadence while reading his work aloud. Franco’s commitment to the role is exceptional.
  • Tone: The gritty, provocative disposition of Ginsberg’s ideas and wildly free-verse style of writing propels him into the controversial throes of the Beat Generation. The revolutionary quality of his lifestyle and body of work is well depicted in the film – the cinematography (jumping from court scene to animation to interview) is just as chaotic as Ginsberg himself. Structurally the film is all over the place, but in doing so it reinforces the overall nature of the story.
  • Animation: The animation was an imaginative way to expand on Ginsberg’s material. Eric Drooker, the designer, illustrated Ginsberg’s poems before he died.

The Good/Bad:

  • Poetry Heavy: The film is very dialogue heavy. It feels like a two hour poetry reading/visual – and we’re not talking “roses are red, violets are blue” – this is edgy, sexually explicit material. It will undoubtedly captivate fans of Ginsberg’s work, but could potentially bore/offend those who have little interest in him.

The Bad:

  • Length: There is no real climax or pivotal story point aside from the outcome of the trial at the end of the film. This, coupled with the never ending dialogue slows the pacing from time to time.


Fans of Ginsberg/Beat Generation will dig this picture – otherwise, it’s unlikely that it’ll be enjoyed. If anything, see it for Franco’s performance.

Rating: 6/10

Howl is open in limited theaters everywhere.

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