This drama centers on Hank Chinaski, the fictional alter-ego of "Factotum" author Charles Bukowski, who wanders around Los Angeles, CA trying to live off jobs which don't interfere with his primary interest, which is writing. Along the way, he fends off the distractions offered by women, drinking and gambling.
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Self-declared aspiring writer Hank Chinaski has neither qualifications, ambition nor ethics. Any dead-end job he lands is soon lost through laziness or mischief. His relationship with fellow deadbeat Jan gets strained to crisis through her insecurity, so he even gives up betting on horses which brought in easy money. Written by
If you remember that Bent Hamer made the little film about a Forties Scandinavian household efficiency program called Kitchen Stories, you'll be partially prepared for the dry, sardonic style of this follow-up feature, the Charles Bukowski-based epic of seedy living Factotum, in which Matt Dillon gives a stylized, restrained performance as the authorial stand-in, Hank Chinaski, and Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei seamlessly slide into the roles of Hank's alcoholic girlfriends Jan and Laura. Bulked up with a zombie stare, stifled voice and shambling walk, Dillon is very good, if, due partly to script limitations, not as compelling as Mickey Rourke in Barbet Schroeder's Barfly. Even overweight and horribly dressed Dillon is still far too handsome to resemble the pockmarked and ugly real-life Bokowski, but you can't fault good looks in a leading man, and the film is dominated by Dillon's character, who's in every scene, his narrative voice brought in to move the episodic plot along and provide Bukowski's insistent commentary on life as he sees it.
Those episodes are all we get, and apart from brief writing and longer romantic interludes, they mainly concern a long round of short-lived jobs -- sorting pickles in a pickle factory, boxing brake shoes, dusting statues, driving a cab (a hard-on's no danger to the driver, the instructor says, but sneezing is), assembling bike parts, and so on, from which Hank is unfailingly soon fired for drunkenness or lateness, insubordination or other misdemeanors -- whereupon he goes back to writing, drinking, and sex -- which latter, Jan tells him, is no good when he gets successful as he does for a while playing the horses. (There's none of the post office sorting job Bukowski did for a long time.) For Bukowski and his alter ego being a seedy loser is a thing carried off with such chutzpah that it's sexy -- and drinking and sex are equally close ways to feed the libido. There are plenty of the ten-cent aphorisms the tireless writer worked at, and there's a plug for the Black Sparrow Press that eventually started to keep and publish his endlessly mailed out submissions and today still survives off maintaining the slob genius' ovre in public hands.
Bokowski appeals to the young, the easily impressed, the hard drinking, and those who like the pithy sayings and ignore the arrested development. For those of bourgeois mentality and upbringing there's a certain imperishably tonic thrill in watching a man who's been down so long it looks like up; who can tell the employer who's just fired him to give him his severance check immediately so he can hurry up and get drunk; for whom no flophouse or flat is too seedy, no bibulous girlfriend a worse drunk than he. How liberating it might be not to care about losing everything, knowing that since paper and pen are nearly free you'll never stop writing: or if you lose heart for a minute or two, a dip into the works of some other writer will encourage you in the belief that you can do better. Bokowski was a tough one.
Matt Dillon is Irish enough to have seen something of the hard drinking life himself. One senses that he knows whereof he speaks and can convey the alcoholic lifestyle without irony or melodrama. There's nothing quite like Lili Taylor coming out in her underwear to fix Hank a meal. His request is for another round of pancakes. "There's still no butter," she says. "Well, they'll be extra crisp," he replies.
In a smaller but still choice role Marisa Tomei is well disguised as another drunken lady Hank goes home with, finding that she lives with a flaky French millionaire called Pierre (Didier Flamand) with a little yacht and dreams of composing an opera. Hank's been taken off so many two bit jobs being fired has no sting left for him. Bukowski's persona is impenetrable and he's a simple survivor: he's almost utterly resistant to the forces of change his wayward lifestyle would activate in lesser beings and hence, unlike the downward spiraling drunk so movingly played by Nick Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, Bukowski's Hank in Dillon's performance cannot build toward pathos or true depth. As suggested, this film doesn't develop its sequences and relationships as thoroughly as Barfly, for which Bukowski himself wrote the screenplay, giving it a continuity and focus Factotum's more cobbled-together script doesn't quite muster.
There's something condescending and cultish in the European cultivation of the Bukowski myth in which this is another short chapter. Factotum is an occasionally amusing, at moments laugh-out-loud kind of movie that's well served by all the principals and by director Hamer's dry wit and restraint, but after the desultory and boring stretches have eventually started to pile up you may begin to say: So what? and wish the fresh novel feel of the early scenes could've been better sustained throughout. Not to fault the editing, but mightn't a native's keener ear for the rhythms of the dialogue have kept the flow going better? This is one to see if you like Matt Dillon or Bukowski; otherwise, save your time.
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