Who's In It: James Franco, Jon Hamm, Mary Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams, Bob Balaban
The Basics: In this bio-docu-drama-mentary, Beat Era writer Allen Ginsberg's perennially controversial epic poem Howl is broken down and reconstructed into a non-narrative pinball machine of spoken word performance, courtroom transcript re-enactment, James Franco interview impersonation and cartoon whirlwind where every word you hear becomes every word you see, including more flying penises than any film in history, including Jackass 3D.
What's The Deal: Nothing in this movie was invented by its creators. Everything comes from recorded history. And the choppy back-and-forth between reading/trial/interview interrupts the usual story arc of beginning, middle and end. There's kind of a narrative framework taking place as the legendary 1957 obscenity trail over Howl plays out (the one where Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publisher of City Lights Books, was ultimately found not guilty), but this is more like a very inventive documentary than the story of Ginsberg you might be hoping for. You get him strictly during his young years when he looked more like James Franco than the wild-eyed grandpa you get in the movie's final moments.
Biggest Problems: The too-obvious animated sequences. They aren't very evocative and aren't a good match for the tornado of still-hard-hitting words coming from Franco's sounds-just-like-Ginsberg mouth. You want it to be as cool as Fantasia or at least approaching the level of weird and rebellious that Ginsberg was himself, but mostly it just looks sort of literal-minded and sometimes even corny.
Worth Watching For: The history lesson. We live in a post-literate world it sometimes seems, where no one feels like they have to have paid attention in English class. So any movies that introduce new audiences to real-life moments when the world was moved forward a little bit by books are nothing to take for granted. See it also for James Franco, in one of those historical figure transformations that Academy Award voters love. He's great here, hypnotically reading the poem like a jazz musician riffing on heroin and humping and homosexuality, making it sound as punchy as it did 50-something years ago.
A Short History Of Rob Epstein And Jeffrey Friedman: The reason this movie is steeped in real stuff is because its creators are veterans of the documentary world, Oscar-winning directors of primarily gay-themed films like Paragraph 175, The Celluloid Closet, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, The Times of Harvey Milk and the groundbreaking 70s doc Word Is Out.