The late Charles Bukowski has become something akin to a cinematic cottage industry. A whole raft of documentaries have been made about him, and now “Factotum” joins Barbet Schroeder’s 1987 “Barfly” in dramatizing the writer’s semi-autobiographical accounts of his hazy, lazy early days. And it’s as good, if not better, than that earlier film.
Of course, it’s not your typical action-packed Hollywood flick, chock full of preposterous twists. Though as its name implies, it depicts Bukowski–or more properly his fictional alter-ego Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon)–making his way through a succession of short-term jobs (taxi driver, factory worker, maintenance man) separated by prolonged intervals of binge drinking and sex, as well as one long stretch when he enjoys a spell of success at the race track, the fact is that plot-wise, nothing much happens in the picture. Chinaski is at the end what he was at the beginning–an alcoholic consumed by the drive to be a writer and not so much defiant as simply oblivious to social expectations. (One of the most telling moments in the script comes when he demands a salary check for the half-day he worked at a new job before wandering off to the nearest bar, informing the personnel manager that he needs the money to get drunk and explaining, “I know it’s not noble, but it’s my choice.” And though one of the stories he’s been obsessively sending off to magazines has finally been accepted for publication, he doesn’t even know it because his mail hasn’t been reaching him.)
What keeps “Factotum” from dissolving into tedium is the cooly minimalist style brought to the material by Norwegian writer-director Bent Hamer, who has a deft way with the no-frills approach that marks a good many of today’s best Scandinavian filmmakers. A good deal of the episodic script by Hamer and his collaborator Jim Stark is offhandedly amusing, not only in the scenes showing Chinaski’s checkered employment career but also in those involving his off but mostly on-again bar partner and squeeze Jan (Lili Taylor), the dissolute hooker (Marisa Tomei) he briefly takes up with, his racetrack pal (Fisher Stevens) and even his parents, an adoring mother and contemptuous father. Hamer stages them all with delicious restraint, never pushing too hard or belaboring the obvious but keeping a bemused distance.
He’s blessed with a superior cast. Dillon, who’s shown a real flair for broad comedy in the past (just think of “There’s Something About Mary”), here submerges what’s left of his leading-man image in the shambling figure of a perpetually lethargic man who simply refuses to hurry. His ingrained deliberation is even better than the approach Rourke took to the character in “Barfly,” and his exhausted, grizzled appearance will make you forget that he’s still a boyishly handsome fellow under the beard. Taylor is more experienced at this sort of dissoluteness, and once again she carries it off well, and Tomei does her surprisingly brief turn nicely, too. The supporting cast is fine across the board.
On the technical side “Factotum” is strictly functional, but John Christian Rosenlund’s cinematography catches the grubbiness of the urban locations nicely, and Kristian Asbjornsen’s spare score suits the visuals. What really distinguishes it is Hamer’s amusingly deadpan take on the material and Dillon’s uncanny ability to embody it in his performance. Like Bukowski himself, the picture requires you to tune into its peculiar wavelength, but if you do, the rewards are substantial.