The Bukowski Stops Here

Washington City Paper | August 25, 2006
Charles Bukowski is an American proto-slacker icon, but it’s easy to understand why all the film adaptations of his writings have been directed by Europeans: For all the lowlife rough-and-tumble of his stories and novels, Bukowski’s cool, boozy despair is closer to Camus than, say, Mark Twain. Following Italian Marco Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness, Frenchman Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly, and Belgian Dominique Deruddere’s Crazy Love, Norwegian writer-director Bent Hamer handles Factotum, Bukowski’s 1975 novel, with immaculate restraint. Hamer previously directed Kitchen Stories, a deadpan satire of the Scandinavian psyche, and his detachment suits the desultory exploits of Bukowski alter ego Henry Chinaski, who’s underplayed with stunning authority by a bearded, lumpy Matt Dillon.

Factotum begins with Henry working in a factory, chopping large blocks of ice. Of course, he doesn’t want ice, but rather the stuff that’s poured over it. Soon Henry is sitting in a bar, enjoying an after-work cocktail a few hours before after-work technically begins. This sort of circumstance is where he’s frequently found, with dependable results: The boss walks in and fires him. Subsequently, Henry finds work with a pickle factory, a taxi company, a bicycle warehouse, a newspaper—not as a writer—and more. Sometimes, but not always, Henry holds the job for more than a day. Keeping a place to live is equally problematic, so when his manuscripts are returned by prospective publishers, he’s not always there to receive them.

Understandably, Henry spends a lot of time alone. He forms brief alliances with a racetrack sharpie (Fisher Stevens) and a battered saloon regular (Marisa Tomei) with a wealthy, if unreliable, patron; he also pays a visit to his mother and father, who could hardly be less sympathetic—not that you can blame them. (“I need a piece of ass” is not the best icebreaker when chatting up long-estranged parents.) Yet Henry does have a soulmate: heavy drinker, enthusiastic sex partner, and sometime hotel chambermaid Jan (Lili Taylor). He returns to her with the same mixture of desperation, acceptance, and delight with which he takes another drink, if not as often.

Henry and Jan’s relationship is far from untroubled, and she can be as feral as he is. At the racetrack, she’s offended when he won’t physically eject a guy from the seats they claimed, so she flirts with the interloper until Henry gets mad enough to slug him. Yet there are tender moments between them, such as the day she dresses up to accompany her unlikely beau to get a severance check from another one-day employer. When the check’s not ready, Jan kicks off her heels in disgust, and Henry puts his shoes on her feet.

Taylor is impeccable as Jan, and the supporting cast is no less impressive. Yet Dillon is the film’s central marvel. He not only embodies Henry, endowing the crusty alcoholic with a full measure of awkward humanity, in brief voiceovers, he also reads Bukowski’s prose convincingly, delivering even the most overripe skid-row romanticism without a hint of embarrassment, hyperbole, or mockery. The script, fashioned by Hamer and co-producer and co-writer Jim Stark from Factotum and some related Bukowski stories, includes a few Henry Miller–like howlers, yet Dillon never loses it.

There are two difficulties with Factotum, one of them central. The lesser one is that the film was shot far from Los Angeles, which was Bukowski’s home since his parents emigrated from Germany when he was 3. Filmed in the least picturesque districts of Minneapolis, and rendered by cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund in the muted hues of a northern clime, the movie feels just a bit off, like a Faulkner novel transplanted to Oslo. The bigger issue is Bukowski himself: He’s a one-note writer, and those unsympathetic to his whiskey-stained worldview will not be converted by this film, as good as it is. For those who’ve never encountered Bukowski on-screen, Factotum is the one to see. But for Bukowski skeptics who’ve already endured a previous adaptation—well, they should probably adjourn directly to the bar.

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