Factotum (2005): Matt Dillon as Bukowski’s Alter Ego

Cannes Film Festival 2005–The tone of Bent Hamer’s “Factotum,” which is inspired by the life and work of iconoclastic street poet Charles Bukowski, is right, even if the film as a whole suffers from the intrinsically episodic and fractured nature of the text.

In what’s one of his most mature and emotionally felt performances, Matt Dillon is so charming and credible as Bukowski’s alter ego, Hank Chinaski, that he elevates the film way above the trappings of the source material. An entrepreneurial American distributor should release this modestly scaled film that with the right handling can score in the indie circuit.

There are so many good things about “Factotum” that director Hamer should be forgiven for glamorizing the squalor–really the lower-depth–of writer Bukowski. “Factotum” is an honorable companion piece to “Barfly,” also inspired by Bukowski, which was made two decades ago with Mickey Rourke in the lead role. Inevitable comparisons will be made not only to Barfly, but also to Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, which represents an early highlight in the career of Matt Dillon, who plays a similar role.

After several years of training at a university journalism program, Chinaski can’t find a job in his line. Down and out, he drifts from one low-paying and humiliating job to another. Factotum captures the tedium of blue-collar life and manual jobs, the kinds of which are very seldom depicted in mainstream or indie cinema, both of which are biased in the direction of middle-class protagonists and issues.

When the movie begins, Chinaski is not delusional about his talents, skills, or career. Asked about his ambitions, he himself says he is not ready yet for a novel, instead channeling his creative faculties into writing short stories, based on his personal feelings and experiences.

At the end of the film, after a series of rejections, one of Chinaski’s short stories gets accepted for publication in a major New York magazine.

Chinaski speaks in a laconic yet precise manner. A good deal of the film is narrated in first person voiceover, adding a self-reflexive layer to the rather simple plot, which centers on Chinaski’s boozing, womanizing, and writing experiences.

Indeed, the two consistent elements in Chinaski’s life are alcohol and women, and he exceeds and excels in both. Two women, played by Lili Taylor and Marissa Tomei, feature prominently in the long parade of ladies, who cover the entire social spectrum, from the rich to the poor.

No job is too low or too monotonous for Chinaski, who at one point finds himself working in a pickles factory. To pay for his bare, minimal existence, he is not above lying or fabricating his past. He applies for a job as a cab driver, disregarding his record of drunken driving. Pleasant or painful, each and every experience is channeled by Chinaski into his creative enterprise. He may not give a full account to his less than satisfying life, but he’s aware of its contribution to the kind of writing he is interested in.

This includes a visit to his parents while utterly broke and nowhere to go. And if his mother is sensitive and understanding to his needs, his father is merciless, kicking him out of the house as a useless bum.

To outsiders, Chinaski’s lifestyle of sex and booze might seem pathetic and wasteful. Yet to the young poet, who’s clearly in his most crucial and formative years, this lifestyle is integral and even necessary to his creativity. Far from being a great film, Factotum has the scale and scope of a typical indie film of the 1980s.