Woke up this morning and it seemed to me,
That every night turns out to be
A little more like Bukowski.
And yeah, I know he's a pretty good read.
But God who'd wanna be?
God who'd wanna be such an asshole?
-- Modest Mouse, "Bukowski"
Hank Chinaski (Matt Dillon) is drunk. Hank Chinaski is unreliable. Hank Chinaski would like very much to be Henry Chinaski, author. Hank Chinaski is Charles Bukowski -- or, more accurately, served as Bukowski's stand-in for himself in his 1975 novel Factotum. That book is now a movie, and it is a bracing shot-and-a-chaser affair of whisky and stupidity. Directed by Brent Hamer (Eggs and Kitchen Stories) and co-written by Hamer and longtime indie producer Jim Stark, Factotum is a film depicting a man's alcoholic collapse, but it's cut to make it look like he's dancing.
Factotum (briefly defined as "A man who performs many jobs" in a helpful opening title) follows Hank through his days weaving and stumbling about a flat Midwestern cityscape drinking, smoking and writing. Dillon plays Chinaski as befuddled and beefy, like an old-model American muscle car that's been idling a while. Chinaski takes in the world with the infinite patience of the well and truly drunk, and turns it into prose that wears a stout jacket of blue-collar sincerity over a frame of shivering poetry: "The lives people live are driving them crazy, and it comes out in how they drive."
And yet, as every first-year logic professor will tell you, just because four of the six American Nobel Prize for Literature winners are alcoholics, that does not mean that four out of every six American alcoholics will win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Henry is a drunk, and a screw-up: Early in the film, he sits at a bar drinking while his ice-delivery truck sits half open, leaning off the curb, the cargo melting into the gutter. Henry is not fired upon returning from the bar; he's fired at the bar, as his boss has come looking for the truck. And much like Barfly (the best known film taken from Bukowski's work), Factotum can't resist romanticizing Henry's life a little. There are jokes in Factotum, but the film never goes to the real punchline: "... And then he drank himself to death over the next 20 years!"
It's hard to make a film about alcohol -- or any drug -- that doesn't make it look glamorous, and Factotum is more than slightly guilty of that cinematic sin. A film like Factotum shows us a bad, mad drunk but implies that, because Bukowski went on to something like fame, it was all worth it; a film like Steve Buscemi's searing Trees Lounge doesn't have a protagonist wrench poetry from the bottom of the bottom of the bottle: They just drink.
At the same time, there's not a lot of glamour in Henry's life: His relationship with Jan (Lili Taylor) is seedy and needy -- sex and booze in rundown apartments, and a career path that consists of trying the handles on parked cars. Taylor is, as ever, excellent -- curses on a Hollywood that can't find part for her -- and captures the wicked see-saw between Jan's affection and addiction, between soft endearments and shrieked curses. Henry also has a brief dalliance with Laura (Marisa Tomei), although it's hard to name reasons for either of them to reach out to the other; then again, when you're drunk enough, you just drift -- through jobs, lovers, hotels and cheap apartments -- and Factotum captures that.
Much of Factotum's appeal comes in its shooting style - the slow, deadpan unfurling of conversations and scenes, the unblinking flat gaze of the camera. I'm sure part of that sensibility comes from co-writer Stark after his work on slow-burn Jarmusch films. But Hamer's got an eye for composition -- a pickled egg levitating aloft on the bubbles in a draft beer has a kind of poetry to it, while every exterior shot is a landscape of squat, industrial buildings that look like they've been beaten down by the passage of time. And Dillon's demeanor -- big, impassive, stone-faced -- also works for the film: The sense of menace Dillon can occasionally project on film is blunted and buffeted by the layer of booze that surrounds him, and the comedy timing he's used in films like There's Something About Mary and The Flamingo Kid also gets to take a turn here as well.
Factotum is a more sedate look at Bukowski's life than Barfly, but it's hardly settled. And it does offer a misty, water-colored perspective on Bukowski's alcohol abuse, even as it depicts the fall-down stupidity of it. "Amazing, how grimly we hold on to our misery," Henry notes in voice-over, but that insight doesn't bring him to any kind of understanding that could let him let go. Factotum is a well-made-but-marginal film about a well-liked-but-marginal figure in American letters.