Factotum (IFC Films, R)

It's the mail-order-a-bottle-of-absinthe mentality versus the give-me-whatever-this-will-buy lifestyle.

 

Charles Bukowski has always been a mixed bag. At times fiery and radiant, full of insightful turns, yet simultaneously stilted and cumbersomely one-tracked. Sure, he was a poet and novelist, but even more so, he was a self-celebrating degenerate-gambling, drinking, and whoring around with masochistic abandon. Like many cult idols, it's a fabled combination, so no wonder Bukowski's stature continually grows, even today. He retains a dirty poetic everyman appeal for readers, the kind who "… dance and drink and screw / because there's nothing else to do," as Pulp sings in their inspired single "Common People."

From a distance, all the seedy amusements are poster-ready for yearning would-be writers and academics who love to buy the tickets to the show but wouldn't be caught dead on stage. It's the mail-order-a-bottle-of-absinthe mentality versus the give-me-whatever-this-will-buy lifestyle. The safety of homespun bravado against the crush of real world existence. And where crawling through the broken underbelly is usually a refuge from life's unbearable twists, Bukowski made it his muse, which is what sets him apart from the preening idealists and hollow writers. Bukowski neither drank to write, or wrote to drink. As he wrote in a journal published as The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship: "I am not in a contest. I never wanted fame or money. I wanted to get the word down the way I wanted it, that's all. And I had to get the words down or be overcome by something worse than death."

Capturing such heartfelt artistic want is not always easy, but Norwegian director Bent Hamer (Kitchen Stories) is able to instill his new film Factotum with a decidedly dark and absurd European awareness that frames the creative drive into a mildly enjoyable episodic tale. Based loosely on Bukowski's second novel and a handful of other excerpted works, Factotum revisits the author's alter ego, Henry "Hank" Chinaski (Matt Dillon). This isn't the first time Chinaski has graced the silver screen either. Mickey Rourke, in a career performance, took up the character in the 1987's Barfly (Bukowski wrote the original screenplay), but where Rourke lit up the screen with fierce indignation, Dillon brings a more affable, and ultimately, less tragic face to Chinaski. As the film's title portents, Chinaski is pushed from job to job, hanging onto work as long as he can to keep drink in his stomach and ideas in his head. The menial tasks Chinaski performs are picaresquely set against the production's Minneapolis-St. Paul location, which lends just the right note of low-rent mentality.

Factotum holds little in the way of plot, but really, what can one expect from something patched together from Bukowski's mind. Hamer and writing partner Jim Stark ably cobble together a meandering story of a writer struggling to break through, circumnavigating manila envelopes, typed pages, and mailboxes, to continually brush up with rejection. That Chinaski, as portrayed by Dillon, is able to continue on while indulging in distracting and destructive vices is somewhat endearing.

Other than his writing, one of the main relationships Chinaski develops is with Jan (Lily Taylor), with whom he shares an unending thirst for alcohol, sex, cigarettes, and poverty. Taylor has treaded this territory before, and Jan seems a distant cousin of Taylor's unbalanced roles as an ex-girlfriend in Stephen Frears' High Fidelity and her appearances as Lisa on HBO's Six Feet Under. Jan and Chinaski are so right and wrong for each other, the relationship becomes the driving force of the movie, creating scenes both unapologetic sad and humorous. In one of the film's funniest moments, the couple ignores a fire and the ensuing evacuation of their apartment building to remain in bed. But for each of those instances, there are others where Jan needles Hank's manhood, challenging his indifference to little annoyances until she pushes him into some sort of action.

Smaller points of interest crop up along the way in Factotum, padding out the thinness inherent in trying to set a single Bukowski piece to film. Chinaski crosses paths and body parts with Laura (Marisa Tomei), a kept woman of the penny-pinching rich eccentric Pierre (Didier Flamand), which lends the movie a bit of vibrant scenery and air. There's also the unnecessary and clichéd father-son confrontation scene. Chinaski's scene sharing a bottle of liquor with a fellow day laborer after they are both kicked out of the job agency for drinking is a much more welcome inclusion.

For all of its success in capturing the tone of Bukowski's work, Factotum is still dogged by the tired narrative of the artist as an alcoholic, something Bukowski recounted innumerable times. Here it's the same old story, one you're already predestined to like or dislike before you even walk into the theater.

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