Ever since his powerful performance in 127 Hours I have found it all the more difficult to take James Franco serious as a credible dramatic actor, or even an interesting onscreen figure. To me he has become a bit too twitchy and seems to be trying a bit too hard to convince the world that he is not only a great actor, but a high brow academic. Now there are many faults with this account of the life of poet Allen Ginsberg, and his controversial poem Howl which led to a major court case, but by the end the one I couldn’t shake the most was Franco.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film juggles three different elements, at the start we get the opening of the court case to determine if Ginsberg’s poem has artistic merit, we then get fictional interviews with the poet as he explains about his upbringing, and what inspired him to write poetry, and we see the events of his life unfold, all this shot in black and white, and the third strand has dramatic animation representing Ginsberg’s erotic and vicious imagination.
Now you could dismiss Franco’s self-important performance as simply an accurate portrayal of Allen Ginsberg (or at least what he might consider to be accurate), so putting that to one side the real problem with the actor as well as with the film, is his lack of energy and just how restrained he is. Indeed his whole performance seems based around mumbling, and longing stares into the camera, even during the scenes when he is reading Howl out in public, you still get the sense of someone going through the motions, unable to ignite the sort of passion of the speaker at that time. And the court scenes suffer from the same thing, except in this case the problem is not so much with the acting, as amongst others you have John Hamm and David Strathairn on top form as the defence and prosecution respectively, but instead the lack of intensity, the bog standard direction as well as the lack of rhythm due to the fact that the film keeps cutting back and forth before they can really get into full flow. Which brings up another flaw for me, as I think maybe the film should have been mainly focused on the poem, and the court case, and less on Ginsberg, to me these seem two different projects and both demand too much time and attention than a film, in this case one under 90 minutes, can provide, and it was the poem and case that felt a bit short changed.
The final twenty minutes almost made the film worthwhile, as the closing stages and especially the closing arguments of the trial make for engrossing viewing, and while Hamm and Strathairn remain quite calm and composed with a slight swagger in their steps, you also get a focused thrust to their words, as they make each sentence count and each word important, which is something Franco failed to do.
Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Stars: James Franco, Todd Rotond, Jon Prescott
Runtime: 84 min