DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
FACTOTUM (director/writer: Bent Hamer; screenwriters: Jim Stark/based on the novel by Charles Bukowski; cinematographer: John Christian Rosenlund; editor: Pal Gengenbach; music: Kristin Asbjornsen; cast: Matt Dillon (Henry Chinaski), Lili Taylor (Jan), Marisa Tomei (Laura), Fisher Stevens (Manny), Didier Flamand (Pierre), Adrienne Shelly (Jerry), Karen Young (Grace), Tom Lyons (Tony Endicott); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Jim Stark/ Bent Hamer; IFC Films; 2005-USA/Norway-in English)

 
"It's not a great film but it might seem great because it does justice to the life force of an exceptional man who had something to say about not being mediocre."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A pleasingly playful but bleak biopic on the colorful early life of the late Skid-Row poet and novelist Charles Bukowski (died in 1994), who went by the fictional alter ego moniker of Henry Chinaski. It follows many other films on the lowlife but talented artist, where such Hollywood luminaries as Ben Gazzara in "Tales of Ordinary Madness" (1981) and Mickey Rourke in "Barfly" (1987) took glee in playing their moody protagonist in his extremes. The film is set in Los Angeles but filmed in a rundown Minneapolis. Norwegian director Bent Hamer (“Kitchen Stories”) gives it a Euro arty touch, while his co-producer and co-writer Jim Stark helps him hand in a deadpan humorous script. It's adapted from the 1975 novel of the same title, written when Bukowski was in his mid-fifties. Other sources that come into play are from the Bukowski novels “The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills” and the posthumous “What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire” and “The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship.”

The film's theme is snatched from the struggling writer's quote in his novel "Factotum": “How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?” The movie has Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon) working a lot of crappy menial jobs during the 1950s just to pay the rent and keep him in booze and smokes (jobs such as working a jackhammer to split ice, sorting pickles and custodial work of polishing a statue in the lobby of a newspaper building). My dictionary says "factotum" is a person employed to do all kinds of work, usually in a subordinate capacity. Henry while drowning out his sorrows in a local watering hole, meets the love of his life, his kindred spirit, the alcoholic and lowlife Jan (Lili Taylor), and they shack up together. When that romance runs its course Henry takes up with flighty bar-hopper hooker Laura (Marisa Tomei). The entire film is about the poet getting a dead-end job and then losing it, boozing, sending off manuscripts for short stories to publishers but always getting rejected, fucking his floozy four times a day when out of work, and staying on this cycle until the film's end. It's then that the poet says something about succeeding if you want something bad enough and are willing to do anything to get it, which in his case meant working on his writing craft despite his crazy life. The poet leaves us with his inspirational message:  "If you are going to try, go all the way or don't even start."

Dillon plays the poet in an understated and refreshing way, with a sharp-edged absurdist Buster Keaton sort of humor, hang-dog expressions and a certain cockiness revealing he thinks of himself as a hot shit. He brings it off by rebelling against rejection slips, spirit killing jobs, ugly scraps with detestable people, being pussy-whipped and all the while never selling out to the establishment types. There's something to be said about Bukowski's gift as a poet (someone I greatly admire) and something about the stand he took in life (which might leave questions, but he was never a phony and what he did might not make sense but it worked for him). 

Bukowski's writings are an acquired taste; this movie is much more accessible and captures the poet's spunk and will to exist as an artist, as someone who turned his workplace woes into art. It's not a great film but it might seem great because it does justice to the life force of an exceptional man who had something to say about not being mediocre.

REVIEWED ON 11/5/2006        GRADE: B+

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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