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Movie Review: Factotum

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The writings of Charles Bukowski are an acquired taste. Praised by some critics as intuitive literary genius and derided by others as the ramblings of a serious alcoholic with delusions of literary grandeur, one simple fact remains. He hit on a collective nerve that had little to do with alcoholism, womanizing or gambling – it had to do with pursuing a life well lived. He never apologized for his shortcomings – he reveled in them.

Factotum, the movie, doesn't stray far from that premise. Where it differs is in its Scandinavian approach to the source material. The American directorial debut of acclaimed Norwegian director Bent Haner, Factotum springboards Bukowski's early days into an allegorical everyman's tale in which the protagonist never fully realizes redemption.

Matt Dillon portrays Hank Chinaski (ostensibly Bukowski's alter ego) as a man disconnected from the realities of the world. His only passion in life is writing, and he's not all that passionate about that. He jots down his thoughts occasionally, but women, menial jobs, horse tracks, and seedy bars distract him from his efforts. He's a factotum, a person who wanders aimlessly from job to job. "I just want to get my paycheck and get drunk," he tells an employer after being fired from one of several jobs.

It would be far too easy to discount Factotum as plotless rambling. To do so, however, would be nothing less than a surrender to the banalities of big budget movies. This is not a film driven by plot so much as it is by character, and in that regard, it shines. In what may be his finest performance to date, Dillon imbues the Chinaski character (read that Bukowski) with a stoic resignation towards the obstacles that confront him.

Most of those obstacles, of course, are roadblocks of his own making — his refusal to compromise to anyone or anything besides his vices– but he never lets them overcome his singular ambition of becoming a published writer. When he's not boozing or playing the horses, he's scribbling random thoughts on a yellow legal pad, and dropping his manuscripts in the mail, with fruitless results.

Accompanying Chinaski through much of the film is the equally besotted Jan, (Lili Taylor, Six Feet Under). Their relationship, based mostly on their mutual alcoholism is, as one would expect, rocky at best. But at its core, it's based more on a disregard for society's expectations than chemical dependency. The bond the pair share supercedes the haze in how their days and nights are spent. In one particularly amusing scene, they're awakened in the middle of the night by the commotion of a fire in their apartment block. They merely shrug it off, and go back to sleep.

It's all set in a surreal version of Los Angeles, bereft of sun and palm trees, or even much of a populace. It's a desolate, gray place (with seamier sections of Minneapolis filling in for El Lay), seen through the eyes of the isolated. In Bukowski/Chanefski's world, "political correctness" is a term that doesn't exist – people smoke openly in offices, people drunkedly wander deserted streets and random fisticuffs go largely unnoticed. Even the time frame is uncertain – working class sixties mores juxtapose with PT Cruisers and computers in an assembly line world where automation has yet to replace the working grunt.

Of course, we're seeing all this through Chanefski's version of the world, and in that convoluted logic, it all makes sense. He sees the absurdities of day to day existence, and gives no pause to consider life beyond its underbelly. His resultant world view is both egocentric and distanced. Since he sees the world only in terms of how it affects his personal aspirations, it's not surprising that his version of Los Angeles is cold and desolate.

Factotum works best when viewed in the context of allegory. It's ultimately a story of sacrifice in the name of art. As Dillon interprets the character, Chanefski never veers from his personal Holy Grail. The menial jobs, the bouts of homelessness, the drunken binges, the meaningless dalliances with various women – all are ingredients to feed his dream. And even though the film's ending is ambiguous, it leaves the viewer with a sense that it might, just maybe have been worth it after all. He's sleeping on a park bench as the credits begin to roll, but that doesn't preclude him from soliloquy, as he advises us: 

    If you're going to try, go all the way. Otherwise don't even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs. And maybe your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery, isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance. Of how much you really want to do it. And you'll do it, despite rejection in the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you're going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods. And the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is.

Despite its measured pacing and often misanthropic viewpoint, Factotum should be required viewing for anyone who ever harbored a dream. It's bleak, often funny, sometimes almost boring and moves at an unsteady rhythm. In short, it's a lot like life.

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About Ray Ellis

  • Great review, well-written as usual.

  • Sam

    This is an excellent film.I really enjoyed this movie.Its not a big budget film but as the critic said its more about character.I must say I was impressed by Dillon’s portrayal of Chinaski.Dillon was very convincing as this indifferent person to everyday routine life.You are drawn into his world of menial jobs, drunken binges, and women.