Factotum (R), directed by Bent Hamer, opens Friday, September 22, at the Little Theatres.
I can't imagine writing anything coherent, let alone transcendent, under the influence of alcohol, although the one time I tried (truthfully, I woke up still drunk and with a 10 a.m. deadline) I have to admit I was rather impressed with the results even after sobering up. But the alcoholic writer is a pervasive and oddly romantic cliché, embodied by shattered souls who beautify the ugly with the help of something fermented and wet. Noted liquor abusers Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson are my personal deities, and so many I know take bruised comfort in the prose of hipster poet laureate/unapologetic drunk Charles Bukowski, who once again gets the celluloid treatment with Factotum.
Based on Bukowski's 1975 novel of the same name --- as well as excerpts from the collections The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship, and What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire --- Factotum stars Matt Dillon as Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's acknowledged alter-ego (his real first name is Henry) and the hero, as it were, of a few of his volumes. The tattered Chinaski is an alcoholic, a writer, and the titular factotum, defined in the film's subtitle as "A Man Who Performs Many Jobs." Factotum observes as he tries to juggle his need for cash with his jones for women, the ponies, and booze ("That may not sound noble," he confesses, "but it is my choice").
Chinaski's job in an ice factory ends when he answers the siren call of the dive bar while out on delivery. During his short-lived employment at a bicycle parts warehouse, Chinaski embarks on a lucrative side situation at the track with co-worker Manny (the squirrelly Fisher Stevens). He applies for a job as a newspaper reporter, but the only position he gets is as the building's cleaner, and he doesn't even finish his first shift. At night Chinaski writes, using a legal pad, a pen, and a fifth, and he faithfully submits the unsolicited results to Bukowski's real-life publisher, Black Sparrow Press.
The women who walk in and out of his life are merely mistresses, since the written word is Chinaski's one true love. Lili Taylor's Jan is the closest he gets to a girlfriend, and she matches him bender for bender, alternately goading the reticent Chinaski and then cowering when her efforts bear violent fruit. During a break in his tenderly unsentimental entanglement with Jan Chinaski meets Laura (Marisa Tomei, surprisingly good), a barfly with a wealthy benefactor who keeps them drunk for a spell, until it's time for Chinaski to settle for familiar mediocrity with Jan again.
So maybe Dillon's recent Oscar nomination for Crash wasn't the harbinger of doom I assumed it was. As the world-weary Chinaski, Dillon chooses to avoid the histrionic trap that has ensnared others playing career drunks, acting as though both motion and emotion are necessary evils and quietly registering all the hopelessness as well as the tiny glimmers of hope. Taylor is naturally flawless in the showier part of Jan, her trusting eyes begging for an opportunity to feel but too accustomed to numbness to chance anything of the sort.
Serviceably directed by Norwegian Bent Hamer and shot in a fittingly dreary Minneapolis, Factotum features people who don't so much fall asleep at night as pass out, eventually greeting the ensuing day with vomit and a cold beer. The soul-sucking jobs are required in order to fuel the vice that enables some to cope and others to create. And since everyone's battling demons of their own, the perceptive compassion we all crave is often just around the corner. Embracing even the most distasteful truths can radiate a kind of dignity.
Actually, it was absurdly poetic that I had to watch this Bukowski movie today. Last night I was totally disillusioned by the careless world, the intervening hours a blurry carnival of overwhelming doubt and self-flagellation, and I wasn't sure I had anything left for writing. Bukowski would have deadened the suffering with scotch or maybe some red wine and then woven together the perfect words to illustrate his despair. But I've never been much of a drinker, so you'll just have to make do with this essay, allegedly about a movie but mostly about me and other wounded humans.