Factotum (United States/Norway, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Welcome to the world of Charles Bukowski - poet, author, skid row denizen, alcoholic, and hero to millions (most of them in Europe). Factotum is director Bent Hamer’s attempt to bring a version of Bukowski’s novel to the screen. This isn’t the first time the controversial figure’s work has formed the basis of a film. Most memorably, Bukowski scripted 1987’s Barfly, which featured Mickey Roarke in the role of Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s fictional alter-ego. 18 years later, Matt Dillon steps into that role for Factotum.

It’s a simple enough story, as befits something from the pen of a man who never cared much about plot. Chinaski (Dillon) is at odds with the world. He drifts through life in an alcoholic haze, never caring about much beyond his writing. His life consists of a string of short-term jobs, most of which he loses because he skips work or is too drunk to function. His love life isn’t much better. He moves from one relationship to another based on circumstances. First, he’s with Jan (Lili Taylor), whose apartment becomes his refuge when he’s evicted from his own. After he grows tired of spending time with her, he moves on to Laura (Marisa Tomei), who keeps company with an eccentric millionaire (Didier Flamand). Eventually, he reunites with Jan, but the second time with her is less harmonious. The film also chronicles a number of Heny’s odd jobs: ice delivery man, pickle factory worker, auto parts sorter, statue duster, etc.

Factotum becomes repetitious after a while. We get the essence of Henry’s character after about 30 minutes. At that point, most of what the film has to say is redundant. This is a character study, not a story about alcoholism or rebellion against the establishment. Henry drinks too much, and he knows he drinks too much, but it doesn’t bother him. He has a clear notion of what his position in life is, and has come to accept it. He doesn’t rant against the whims of fate; he doesn’t cry about his misfortunes. The thing that matters to him is writing, and that’s the only area of his life where he shows discipline. Everything else - women, money, jobs, living accommodations, and family (there’s a memorable confrontation between Henry and his parents) - is disposable.

Although the pace is slow, and the plot is sparse, Factotum boasts three wonderful performances. As the lead, Matt Dillion is in peak form - as good, if not better than, he was in his Oscar-nominated role in Crash. Dillion avoids the overacting that is common in movies about drunks and, while it can’t be said that he finds much humanity in Henry, he avoids transforming him into an amoral caricature. Equally good, and more sympathetic, is Lili Taylor as Jan. It’s a touching performance for Taylor, who often plays outcasts and oddballs. Marisa Tomei (providing her first instance of on-screen nudity) is effective in a supporting role.

Those who have seen Barfly will notice differences and similarities. Both films provide a perspective of life as filtered through booze, with a main character whose alcoholism and art are inextricably entwined. However, the earlier film was dark and depressing; director Hamer finds humor in many of Factotum’s situations. Nevertheless, after a while, Factotum surrenders to monotony and only the performances are likely to retain the viewer’s interest. There’s probably an audience for this film, but I suspect it’s not a large one.

Factotum (United States/Norway, 2005)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2006-08-18
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1