Film Reviews

Macho Pig Imperfect

Bukowski takes a shot at the corner in Factotum.

Charles Bukowski's second novel, Factotum, is a trashy ramble in which the mythically alcoholic writer's alter ego, Henry Chinaski, drinks, fucks, and gets canned from menial jobs in New Orleans, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and anywhere else one can drink, fuck, feed from the bottom, and growl courtly lyricism such as "her triangle of cunt hair was almost hidden by her dangling, bouncing stomach." Norwegian director Bent Hamer's like-titled film, drawn from the '75 book and various volumes of Bukowski's poetry, scraps the novel's picaresque element, restricting Chinaski's wanderings to a nameless city that sometimes stands in for Bukowski's native Los Angeles but looks a lot like (and is) Minneapolis.

Factotum eructs the reverse side of the postcard lakes and recent architectural coups of Minneapolis' national reputation. Instead, we get gray industrial stagnation both depressing and quaint, strip joints lit in vintage red light, studio apartments equipped with grime and obsolete appliances, and time-passed corner bars whose neon beckons veteran lushes only. When a gold PT Cruiser pulls up to one such dive, the bar's genuinely dated exterior puts the car's falsely vintage design in smart comic relief. This is the Minneapolis of "crumbling beauty" that inspired Tom Waits to write "9th and Hennepin."

Hamer, making his English-language debut here, is a merchant of quiet movies. His previous film, the glacial and charming Kitchen Diaries, was a celebration of male friendship based on a strange-but-true study in which Swedish home-ec researchers silently observed how Norwegian bachelors behaved in their kitchens. It featured long, dialogue-free stretches and was set in December yet remained steadfastly warm. Factotum, informed as much by Hamer's low-intensity sweetness as by Bukowski's expectorating misanthropy, depicts not so much raving alcoholism as murmuring alcoholism and quests after nonhearty laughs rather than desolation-row pathos. Hamer reprises the absurdist visual humor of Kitchen Diaries and gets special mileage out of Chaska's Gedney Pickle Factory, where Chinaski works for a typically brief spell. To that, the director adds, for subject-appropriate hipness, the episodic comedy of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise (Hamer collaborated on the adaptation with Jarmusch associate Jim Stark) and stays true to the source material by avoiding plot as assiduously as his cameras avoid condominiums and franchise theme bars.

Matt Dillon is, of course, overqualified in the beauty department to play Chinaski but frequently looks the part anyway. The hairline is perfect, the jutting jaw and furrowed brow troglodytic enough from certain angles, the cheeks puffy and booze-ruddy. Dillon doesn't match the skuzzy charisma that Mickey Rourke brought to 1987's Barfly, for which Bukowski wrote the screenplay, but his performance has its own appeal. His soft, smoky voice is part late-period Bukowski (evaluate the impression by renting the 2004 documentary Bukowski: Born Into This) and part Mayberry's Floyd the Barber, and by that, I do mean to suggest deliberate silliness. The funniest scenes feature Chinaski and a succession of square, old-world/otherworldly bosses. When he gets sacked by a taxi outfit for lying on his application, Chinaski casually asks if the boss might call him a cab home, and the star gives the joke just the sly mien it deserves.

In Dillon's acting and Hamer's direction, there's an appropriate disdain for bourgeois blandness and pointless labor, and there's soulfulness too but no real darkness, the succession of dimly lit scenes notwithstanding. The kid-gloves approach is problematic because this is problematic material. Some readers see a critique of boorish masculinity in Bukowski's work, and there's some truth in that view. A book published during a peak period for American feminism that relishes sentiments like "I kept telling myself that all women in the world weren't whores, just mine" and "She had a tight pussy and took it like it was a knife that was killing her" (heard in voice-over in the film) is a pretty damned reactionary book. Of course, Chinaski is an outsized, fantastic version of Bukowski, not the real, complex, sporadically brilliant thing, but they were close, and the author intends for the conflation to be near complete. Likewise, Factotum isn't Bukowski's aw-lighten-up-bitch apology, but it can feel that way, and at a certain point — say, when you're old enough to vote — you've got to concede that the gritty prose of a million cocktail napkins doesn't make the glamour of self-destruction and guilt-free domestic violence (plus attendant chivalry) any less of a sham.

In one short scene from the movie, Chinaski storms into a bar, decks his girlfriend Jan (Lili Taylor, who with nonchalant humor and toughness takes one of Bukowski's cipher harlots and turns her into a real character), and then shouts, "If anybody here doesn't like what I just did, then say something!" The bar's patrons, including an extra played by Spider John Koerner, mimic Bukowski's cult by remaining silent. Hey, they've got shots to polish off.

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Dylan Hicks
Contact: Dylan Hicks