It would be the autobiographical novels Post Office, Women and Hollywood, along with, eventually, the 1987 movie Barfly — all searing portraits of a distinctly Southern California underclass — that would resonate worldwide and turn blue collar novelist and poet Charles Bukowski into a celebrated countercultural icon. The biographical drama Factotum, though, takes as its core Bukowski’s same-titled second tome, as well as excerpts from three other books, all centering around drunken roustabout Henry Chinaski, widely acknowledged to be the writer’s alter ego.
Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer (Kitchen Stories) and released this month through IFC Films, the movie is a rambling, episodic mock-biography of Bukowski, anchored by a fine, square-jawed starring performance from Crash‘s Matt Dillon. Like his creator, Chinaski swings through a wide variety of low-paying, non-creative, menial jobs (working at a bike shop, a pickle factory, as an ice deliveryman and janitor) and a smaller handful of codependent, quasi-abusive monogamous relationships (embodied here by Marisa Tomei as a fling, and Lili Taylor as on-again/off-again girlfriend Janet). Truly playing the field, you see, would take too much effort — as well as time away from Chinaski’s favorite mistress, the bottle. Through it all Chinaski pens short stories and sends them off blindly to a magazine in New York, subsisting on jug-wine and pancakes, cigarettes and melancholy.
Hamer has a penchant for fade-ins and -outs that will strike some as too affected, and the “story” here is undeniably paced like a snail, and at times willfully crude. (One amusing segment finds Chinaski getting his testicles delicately taped up into a homemade diaper after he contracts crabs from Janet.) Dillon, though, has in his age settled into a more mature, relaxed and naturalistic delivery, and he here approximates Bukowski’s deep, rumbling and inflected timbre — part wizened yet intoxicated preacher’s cadence, part sonorous bullshitter — in a manner that really gives you a window into Chinaski’s inherent glumness, his death-grip hold on misery. You get a palpable sense of how Chinaski’s (and thus Bukowski’s) acting out stems from his racing, perpetually dissatisfied inner monologue, and how his general disagreeableness and bad attitude toward those around him is hardwired to an irreconcilable urgency to locate in both life and his art the same sort of forward-leaning insistence he feels in his soul.For Bukowski, writing was living. An arthouse curio, Factotum isn’t for all tastes, but it’s studded with dark delights (Chinaski stalking one employer, trying to score a check for a half-day’s work), and it conveys with unflinching precision the life of a dinged, beaten-down spirit for whom creativity wasn’t just an impulse but rather a compulsion. (IFC Films, R, 94 minutes)