Factotum does not achieve the dream someone had of fulling realizing Charles Bukowski‘s life on the screen. Who knows if that’s really possible, but many seem to have the desire to make it so. One dude at the screening I attended even got up in the front and yelled, “Fuck this! This is an insult to Charles Bukowski!” during a particularly hokey scene at the race track. He then stormed off in front of his date, who was pretty cute, and unfortunately followed after a moment’s hesitation….
That said, Factotum is not a bad movie. Like Barfly, which clumsily stabbed at Hank Chinaski’s character, the latest effort does not bring to life all the emotional layers of Bukowski’s writing, but it stands on its own as a watchable and at times entertaining film. Also like Barfly, there are some windows here into Bukowski’s life, his genius, his dedication, his toughness, his sweetness, and his passion that I found eye-opening. Most of this has to do with an understated performance by Matt Dillon, that despite the actor’s good looks, delivers some of the ugly magnetism of this mysteriously truthful gutter poet. Dillon holds the swaggering, monstrously large upper body and gorilla head of Bukowski quite well, speaking in soft, enunciated tones that display an intelligence and inner fire.
Mickey Rourke played caricature in Barfly, albeit one crafted through serious method acting. You could smell him, taste him, you knew him, and the places he drank from on Sunset, but he was not Charles Bukowski. He was a drunken piece of crippled crap who could write well. Dillon goes for the real character of the novel and lets the little things reveal much more than drunken debauchery after debauchery. A sozzled visit to his parents’ nice suburban house when he has nowhere else to go says as much about Chinaski’s spirit as a million barrooms and flophouses. Attempting to appear sober behind a face of decaying skin, we see the struggles of a man trying to be who he is and nothing else, in the face of a rigid society.
Factotum focuses on Bukowski’s younger years, full of terribly boring factory jobs, cheap sluts, hangovers, benders, and constant writing towards some sort of distant goal with passion and grandeur, both in illusions and manners. Lily Taylor turns in a great performance as yet another pasty, skeletal white woman who seems cool to smoke a joint with and that you’d probably do (if asked), despite being kinda creepy. A gorgeous Marisa Tomei plays her antithesis as an LA party girl cared for by a perverted European. Both are crazy for our hero of course, who shows more emotion over an STD than he does for promises of love and devotion, his mind ever fixed on bigger things. Through much of it all, Hank Chinaski (Buk’s alter-ego) passively allows things to happen to him, like most of the great Flaneurs of history. He’s taken on a yacht cruise, finds himself in and out of jobs, beds, hovels, and bars, while writing down the details that lead him out of the squalor where he comfortably hovers, eking by on minimum wage, unemployment, old pancake mix, and corners in wine bottles. Moments most of the TACO staff and readership can relate to at some point or other in our Los Angeles lives.
This brings us to the other co-star of Factotum: Los Angeles. Gone are Barfly’s dank streets and blurry nights. Here is Los Angeles in more authentic, recognizable strains of light. The harsh sun of mid-day makes you feel hung over just watching Hank cross the street. The warehouses, the city lights at night, the freeways, and the glittering sea all play their parts to perfection. It is not a definitive look at our city, but surely a different one than Beverly Hills Cop II (which of course is a fine film, don’t get me wrong).
A million bums have a million stories, but few are committed to expression the way the prolific Bukowski was, and the film makes a strong impression of a man committed to survival and the written word. While it may not capture the book’s overall emotional spirit, has a somewhat ponderous pace, and at times is cheesily light-hearted, it’s still a decent movie with kick-ass performances from most of the cast. In other words, wait for DVD and don’t take it too seriously like the guy who walked out– it may not live up to Bukowski’s legend, but it may be worth watching.