Newsweek has already hailed Howl as "a great film," which is exactly what it is not. Now, a great performance -- that's more like it. James Franco (above, right) captures the Allen Ginsberg we hear in our heads and know in our bones. The actor lowers or raises his diaphragm and pitch to achieve Ginsberg's soul-vibrating chant-recitations of the movie's title poem. Franco never once relies on his own crinkly-eyed smile to charm or wink at his audience. Instead, he looks at the camera with Ginsberg's cock-eyed, moist deadpan, or reproduces the Elated Allen Grin -- an ear-to-ear face-splitter that can vanish in an instant.
Howl is a sentimental disappointment whenever Franco isn't front-and-center. Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman can justify the animation sequences by Eric Drooker by saying that Ginsberg himself collaborated with Drooker, but that doesn't make the cartoon sequences any less maudlin.
As for the restaging of the Howl obscenity trial, Jon Hamm and David Strathairn give good, understated performances in search of dramatic reinforcement: They're reduced to reciting court transcript, staged with all the immobility of a grade-school pageant.
No, at bottom, Howl will survive most usefully when some adroit techno-lit-phile inevitably recuts the film as a YouTube video consisting solely of Franco's recitation of "Howl." Maybe with a split-screen of Ginsberg own readings. "Great YouTube video" doesn't have the same ring as "great film" (yet). But it's truer to the spirit of both Ginsberg's great poem and Franco's great homage to it.