While Bent Hamer
's Factotum isn't equal to the source material, it's a must-see for all of us fascinated by Charles Bukowski, by his persona as much as his words. Adapted from the namesake novel by Hamer and Jim Stark, Factotum's central character is Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's fictional alter ego who, like its author, is a shambling, hard-drinking writer, slumming away at odd jobs, quartering in hole-in-the-wall apartments, while he scrawls away at poems and stories every chance he gets.
To watch Matt Dillon
personify Chinaski/Bukowski is thrilling: At least from outward appearance, the actor has nailed the role, and, at times, he seems to be channeling Bukowski from the grave. It's an eerie simulacrum: Dillon skulks about the screen, slouch-shouldered, sporting a scruffy beard, a mane of combed-back hair, wearing the short-sleeves and slacks that was Bukowski's standard wardrobe, regarding the world with hangdog eyes and a jaw jutting outward in a subtle show of defiance. Article continues below
Equally arresting is the always-fantastic Lili Taylor
, playing Chinaski's on-again, off-again girlfriend, Jan. She's his kindred spirit, which means the two get along best with a jug of wine between them. As Jan, Taylor projects a mannish energy. Wearing a perpetual sneer, keeping her frayed hair and shoulders tossed back, she enters any room like she's spoiling for a fight. Jan is also fiercely possessive of Chinaski and panics whenever any windfall threatens their low-rent, booze-sodden lifestyle. She's also the only person who can push the bearish Chinaski's buttons. When they break up, their trails lead back to each other and entwine, as before, then wind apart again, exactly like twin DNA strands.
Chinaski's search for work and his rocky relationship with Jan form Factotum's nominal narrative thread. No sooner does Chinaski land a job that he gets bored with it or chafes under the authority of white-collar boobs, and leaves. He hates them so much -- in the same way he hates his father (as one scene implies) -- that he defies their authority in ways both direct and passive-aggressive: After one boss, finding him at a local dive instead of on the job, fires him, Chinaski calmly replies by offering him a drink. Midway through Factotum, we get a romantic interlude of sorts involving Laura (Marisa Tomei
), a gold-digging floozy. Laura's got her hands in the pockets of a moneyed, European eccentric (Didier Flamand
) who offers wayward women asylum in his morgue-like home. Chinaski's sojourn with Laura and her ilk takes Factotum into outer David Lynch territory, and, somehow, we're glad when Chinaski breaks free of them and returns to his sunnier, native habitat of the urban jungle.
Like Post Office and Ham on Rye, Factotum is ultimately a chronicle of its author's anxious, unconquerable desire to write, to transcribe his toils, obsessions, and pains into the stuff of art. Beneath Bukowski's reticent surface, fires raged -- stoked by the man's angry, lustful, transgressive emotions. Words plucked from those fires were then hammered into shape and branded onto the page. It's that smoldering quality in the prose that missing in Stark and Hamer's handling -- the contradiction between the inner and outer dimensions of the writer. Rather than finding an expressive style that rendered the world as grotesquely as Chinaski sees it, a style to counterpoint the character's calm, composed exterior, the material settles for a safe, neutered approach. This Factotum is more eager and willing to put Bukowski's words in prettily composed frames. Hamer and Stark only get the outlines of Chinaski's life right -- the hand-to-mouth living and boozing in which all that spiritually sustains the writer are the hours spent hunched over his notepad with a ballpoint pen. Finally, Dillon and Taylor are the sources of Factotum's vitriol and sharpness. They seem willing to delve where Hamer's direction dare not go.