Charles Bukowski wrote dozens of volumes of poetry and prose, but he's best known for his novels chronicling the misadventures of his sodden alter ego, Henry Chinaski, an unapologetic drunk, compulsive horseplayer and barroom lothario. Europeans love his work, perhaps because they read it as a lampoon of American culture, perhaps because they ache to thumb their noses at their own bureaucratic societies. In 1987, New Wave auteur Barbet Schroeder turned Bukowski's novel Barfly into a popular film starring Mickey Rourke as Chinaski; nearly two decades later, Norwegian New Wave director Bent Hamer has adapted Factotum, with Matt Dillon in the lead role.
Bukowski published Factotum in 1975, basing the book on his experiences working odd jobs in the '40s and '50s. He never lasted long at any position-boozing was his first priority and he had a problem with authority-but he sustained himself with winnings from the track. The film follows him from gig to gig, woman to woman, flophouse to gin joint, in an anonymous city (actually, Minneapolis-St. Paul) with no particular attention to plot or character development. In most movies, a static script would spell trouble, but not one based on Bukowski's life. Everything happens in slow motion, through an alcoholic haze, each incident ending (often literally) with a punch line. Factotum isn't for everybody, certainly not the abstentious. But there's no denying it, Chinaski appeals to our inner anarchist.
Dillon delivers a convincing performance as a drinker with a writing problem, one that's a lot more fun to watch than his turn as a yuppie architect in Me, You and Dupree. He's too handsome and too fit, but he captures the tension between the self-deprecating lush and self-aggrandizing litterateur that was the source of Bukowski's creativity. Hamer includes numerous scenes of the author at work, scribbling left-handed, in pencil, on legal pad, with Dillon reciting from Bukowski's novels in weary voiceover, exploding any notion about the glamour of the writing life and reminding the audience that persistence counts far more than genius.
Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei, as Chinaski's intemperate girl friends, give themselves over to their roles, puffy eyes and all. They are needy, defiant and opportunistic...incarnations of the groupies that turn up in all of Bukowski's books. Didier Flamand makes the most of his campy cameo as Pierre, an aging trust-fund flunky with a weakness for bad girls. The unsung hero of Factotum, however, is production designer Eve Cauley, whose ingenious mix of contemporary office parks and anachronistic SROs gives the film its edge. We're never sure what decade we're in, making us feel as dislocated as the dipsomaniacs on screen. Her whiskey palette of brown and burgundy, the nicotine and dried blood of a crapulent weekend, suits Bukowski like a shot and a beer.
Hamer's previous feature, Kitchen Stories, about Scandinavian efficiency experts determined to ease the burden of housework, became Norway's entry for best foreign-language film at the 2004 Oscars. The subject and setting of that charming satire might seem a world away from inner-city America, but it unfolds with an episodic structure and wry wit similar to Factotum. Audiences who enjoyed the former should like the latter as well, although this time the director serves his sarcasm straight up, no chaser.