'Factotum' is true to the grit, poetry of Charles Bukowski

Times Staff Writer

The low-life serenade writing style of the rebellious Charles Bukowski is an acquired taste, but the good news about "Factotum" is that you don't need to acquire it in order to thoroughly enjoy this playfully bleak piece of work.

That's because "Factotum," based on a 1975 Bukowski novel, is actually a delicate melding of a trio of sensibilities that don't naturally cohere. It gracefully combines the bleak world of the despairing poet and novelist with the droll point of view of Norwegian director Bent Hamer and the distinctly American independent acting sensibility of stars Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor.

This may sound ungainly, but the result is a surprisingly satisfying film, true to Bukowski and itself, a work that manages to make the man and his profane world more palatable without compromising on who he was and what he stood for.

The voice of the disenfranchised and the by-alcohol-dispossessed, Bukowski, who died in 1994, recently returned to the news when his widow donated his literary archive to the prestigious Huntington Library. Considered a major literary figure in Europe, he's attracted cinematic notice before, in an informative documentary called "Bukowski: Born Into This" and in several fiction films, including "Barfly" (1987), in which his alter ego Henry Chinaski was played by Mickey Rourke.

Director Hamer also has a noteworthy past: His charming "Kitchen Stories" was a surprise art-house hit a few years back. Assisted here by the mischievous music of Norway's Kristin Asbjornsen, who has turned some of Bukowski's poems into songs, "Factotum" displays the director's trademark absurdist sensibility and gift for whimsical humor.

Though Bukowski lived most of his life in Los Angeles and set his writings here, "Factotum" has not only moved the time frame to the present but has also chosen to leave the city nameless while shooting very satisfactorily in much more Scandinavian Minneapolis.

The dictionary defines "factotum" as someone who does all kinds of work, and the film opens with Chinaski (Dillon) gainfully employed at one of the oddest jobs imaginable, using a jackhammer to break up sheets of ice for delivery to customers in need of cooling.

Within minutes, that job is history, but no matter. For a man who'll work anywhere once, including a bicycle supply warehouse and a pickle factory, what is one job more or less? Chinaski even finds employment at a reasonable facsimile of the Los Angeles Times, dusting a huge lobby statue called "Visions of Peace."

The reason Chinaski leads such a hapless, listless, aimless life, struggling with small-time schemes and plans as he stumbles from one half-sodden situation to the next, is his full-time commitment to alcohol in quantities that would anesthetize a moose. "That may not sound noble," is how he puts it, "but it is my choice."

As played with deadpan Buster Keaton grace by the gifted Dillon, who is maturing into one of the most unexpectedly involving of contemporary actors, Chinaski has a remarkable dignity and self-possession for a nominal down and outer.

A wary, somewhat tentative man given to telling apoplectic bosses "I've given you my time, which is all any man has to give," Dillon's Chinaski has the can't-be-fazed confidence of someone who has seen the worst the world can throw at him and pretty much survived. There is a calmness to him even when he is furious, and, fleshed out with an involving voice-over that screenwriter Jim Stark has adapted from Bukowski's own writings, he is a character whose sense of humor is matched by his sense of self.

Though he has a brief fling with the bar-hopping Laura (a fine Marisa Tomei), the love of Chinaski's life, at least as far as this film is concerned, is the unapologetic alcoholic Jan (Taylor), a co-religionist who is every bit the drinker and bottom feeder that Chinaski is. When they embark on joint benders, even figuring out what the time of day is can become a major challenge.

"Factotum" hardly soft pedals these people; we see them at their physically and verbally abusive worst. But helped by superior acting by Dillon and the always excellent Taylor, who spark to each other here in the best possible way, we are also allowed a glimpse of the sweetness and the absurdity that coexist with the feckless squalor and bad behavior, and that is no small accomplishment.

Helping "Factotum" manage this is director Hamer's instinctive minimalism. Chinaski and Jan are not typical movie alcoholics, they don't overdo things and fall down dead drunk. The delicacy of their actions forms a fine counterpoint to the extent of their dissipation, allowing us to understand what Chinaski means when he titles one of his short stories "My BeerSodden Soul Is Sadder Than All the Dead Christmas Trees in the World."

For the other saving grace of Chinaski/Bukowski is that he is a writer, totally serious about himself and his work even though few other people know or care about what he is doing. "If you are going to try, go all the way or don't even start" is his creative philosophy. If you follow it, he says, "you will be alone with the gods. It is the only good fight there is." No matter how drunk he got, and few people got drunker, being true to that credo was what kept him alive.



MPAA rating: R for language and sexual content

An IFC Films release. Director Bent Hamer. Screenplay Hamer and Jim Stark, based on the novel by Charles Bukowski. Producers Stark, Hamer. Director of photography John Christian Rosenlund. Editor Pal Gengenbach. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. In limited release.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World