Charles Bukowski deserves better than director Bent Hamer’s dismal, wearisome adaptation of his novel Factotum, and so do Bukowski’s fans.
The movie is ugly, depressing and persistently off-putting, even repulsive at times in its portrait of an artist as an embodiment of human detritus. Granted, it may be a fair reflection of Bukowski’s own lifestyle, but this is a case where a thousand words of Bukowski’s playful prose is worth far more than the nasty pictures Hamer employs to capture the writer’s spirit.
It’s one thing to read about a degenerate life in poetic language; it’s another to watch such a life play out in explicit imagery.
The book was a thinly veiled chronicle of the young Bukowski’s meandering, odd-jobbing, boozing and womanizing while trying to become a writer during the Second World War.
Crudely updated to modern times, the movie stars Matt Dillon as Bukowski’s alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, who would rather hold a drink than a job and dashes off his scribbled short stories to magazine editors in between binging and sleeping around.
That’s pretty much the whole movie. Chinaski finds work, gets bored or angry or thirsty, and wanders off. Sometimes to a bar. Sometimes to the racetrack. Sometimes he gets fired the first day on the job. Sometimes he lasts a month or two.
He wanders from woman to woman, mainly the clingy Jan (Lili Taylor, who looks so grubby and trashy in some scenes she’s downright vulgar). Chinaski also hooks up with a mildly higher-class breed of tramp, Laura (Marisa Tomei).
Hamer, co-writing the screenplay with Jim Stark, weaves in voice-overs of Dillon reading bits and pieces of Bukowski’s lyrical street-wise insights from various books, those sequences providing the movie’s few highlights.
The rough-edged humour and whimsy of Bukowski’s writing is largely lacking, a surprise given the fanciful tone of Hamer’s 2004 comic gem Kitchen Stories.
The performances fit the dreary tone, Dillon suitably bellicose or offensive or, at Chinaski’s best, merely disagreeable. Tomei flits in and out of Factotum so quickly she has little chance to put much of a face on Laura, but Taylor really hurls herself into Jan, and while it’s some fine acting, it’s unpleasant in the way watching a drunken bimbo pleading for another drink would be unpleasant in real life.
The bleak and ragged design, cinematography, clothing and makeup all carefully suit the mood, the filmmakers apparently aiming to show the unsightly and unromantic side of the artistic life.
Essentially, it’s 90 minutes of humans wallowing in filth, for instance, Chinaski and Jan taking turns jumping out of bed and running to the bathroom to retch and puke after a bender.
Do some people live this way? Sure. Do the rest of us want to watch them? Probably not.