Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

While the writings of Charles Bukowski are never going to translate into anything like mainstream cinema, nonetheless there will always be a niche market for their combination of Hemingway-esque machismo and dipsomaniac nihilism. His works have previously been adapted into the apocalyptically downbeat Tales Of Ordinary Madness and the tenderly necrophiliac Crazy Love (aka Love Is A Dog From Hell). Bukowski himself wrote the screenplay for Barfly (the title is the giveaway here) and his boozy influence can be felt in films, such as Trees Lounge, Bad Santa and even Shakes The Clown. The only thing heroic in any of these is the drinking and yet their lowlife male protagonists are elevated by a singular commitment to self-destruction as a mark of individuality and independence - making them precisely the sort of outsider figures that independent cinema loves to champion as a mirror of itself.

Bent Hamer's Factotum is the latest attempt to distill some of that Bukowski spirit for cinemagoers. The film is, like its principal character's life, meandering, crapulous and episodic, with its sequences stitched loosely together from several of Bukowski's books. The factotum of the title is Hank Chinaski (Matt Dillon), whose alcohol-fuelled resistance to any kind of authority ensures that, no matter whether he is delivering ice, working in a pickle factory, training as a taxi driver, repairing bicycles, making shoe parts or cleaning statues, is sure to be fired just as quickly as he is hired.

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The only reason Henry works at all is to live and the only things he lives for are wine, women and writing. Still, as he drifts from job to job and woman to woman (chiefly Lily Taylor's lovelorn lush Jan and Marisa Tomei's society barfly Laura), the relationship between work, life and art becomes desperately confused.

Dillon plays Chinaski as a deadpan, dead-drunk cipher and it is only his beautifully drawled voice-over that lends the man anything like substance, however false. He casts himself as a working-class hero, but in fact he cannot hold a job any longer than he can hold a glass. He boasts of being a regular Casanova with the ladies, but, given the well-known effects of excessive drinking on the libido, one suspects that alcohol is just about the only fluid he exchanges with Jan. Indeed, the sequence where she applies improvised bandages to his infested and shriveled manhood hints at the less salubrious reality behind all his braggadocio. Chinaski, it seems, is a failure in everything except words.

This portrait of an artist as a young sot reels and swaggers towards some kind of redemptive conclusion but, in a truly bold move on the part of the filmmakers, never quite gets there. For Hamer has devised a bittersweet ending that keeps the literary success of the real Bukowski at a tantalising distance from his alter ego Chinaski, leaving us with the blurred vision of a man destined to become not so much the celebrated author of Tales Of Ordinary Madness as the aging, doomed alcoholic who features in it.

Despite the subject matter, Factotum is a very dry affair, full of droll situations and finely observed performances. Its loose structure is concerned less with broad narrative arcs than with random, largely comic snapshots of ruination. In the end, however, there is no mistaking the maudlin times that lie ahead at the bottom of the bottle.

Reviewed on: 17 Nov 2005
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Portrait of the drinker as an artist.
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Read more Factotum reviews:

Kotleta *****
Jennie Kermode ***1/2

Director: Bent Hamer

Writer: Bent Hamer, Jim Stark, based on the writings of Charles Bukowski

Starring: Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor, Marisa Tomei, Fisher Stevens, Didier Flamand, Adrienne Shelly, Karen Young, Tom Lyons, Dean Brewington, James Cada, James Michael Detmar, Kurt Schweickhardt, Dee Noah, James Noah, Michael Egan, Terry Hempleman, Emily 'Sophia Simo

Year: 2005

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Norway, US, Germany, Italy, France


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