Movies about writers can be problematic affairs – plenty of opportunities for the portrayal of tortured geniuses wrestling with their demons while trying to get their thoughts onto paper, but the fact remains that there's very little cinematic about someone whose occupation is an entirely solitary one. Luckily the subject Charles Bukowski's writing WAS his life, and this adaptation of his 1981 novel Factotum does a largely successful job of translating his booze-sodden, darkly funny slices of urban existence to screen. Norwegian director Bent Hamer moves the setting from 1940s Los Angeles to modern day Minneapolis-St. Paul, but much of his screen version remains extremely faithful to the source material.
Matt Dillon takes the lead role as Henry Chinaski – Bukowski in all but name – a struggling writer and full-time alcoholic, who maintains a meagre existence working a series of dead-end jobs while writing short stories and poems about his life and the world around him. Jobs range from stuffing pickles into jars to dusting huge statues in the foyers of a newspaper office, but the fact remains that he is always sacked after a few days, usually when his employers discover him drinking on the job. Along the way he pursues some similarly ill-fated relationships with women including Laura (Marisa Tomei) and Jan (Lili Taylor).
Like the early work of Jim Jarmusch, this is a film small on drama but big on incidents. The plot isn't really anything more than a series of anecdotes as Chinaski stumbles along, fighting a losing battle with everyday life – some are sad, many are funny, but few have punchlines or make any dramatic points. Chinaski is introduced to a fellow writer by his boss, but they have nothing to say to each other. He is owed a cheque by one employer – he turns up two days in a row, and gets the cheque on the second day. He goes to the unemployment officer but gets kicked out for drinking on the premises with an ageing bum. He gets in a fight at the racetrack with a guy who stole his seat. And so on, with Chinaski learning little from his experiences, but presumably recording them in his writing which he regularly sends off to a small-press publisher. Most of these anecdotes are taken directly from the pages of the novel and although some work better than others, the cumulative effect is a convincing portrayal of Chinaski's unfocused life.
Factotum constantly teeters on the edge of being boring, but for better or worse, that's sort of the point. Hamer avoids the histrionics usually associated with movie drunks – in particular Nicolas Cage's look-at-me performance in Leaving Las Vegas – and Matt Dillon delivers a career-best performance as Chinaski. Bulked-up and bearded, Dillon moves just that bit slower than everyone else, his reactions aren't as sharp – despite the obvious intelligence and wit that he manages to get down in his writing. Chinaski can be charming and he certainly never lacks for female company, but neither Hamer or Dillon are afraid to show an ugly, brutish side, most obviously in the scene where he follows Jan into a bar after a row and knocks her flying from her stool.
It is Henry's relationship with Jan that forms the film's emotional core. This union is ultimately doomed because Chinaski's restless spirit and cynical attitude towards love will always corrupt any 'happiness' they've found together. There are some standout, surprisingly tender scenes involving the pair; in one, Chinaski gives Jan his shoes as they trudge wearily through the city's streets. Another sees Chinaski rise hungover from his bed, vomit and open a beer, followed moments later by Jan, who vomits then lights a cigarette. This is a lengthy scene, conducted wordlessly and in a single take, that finds real heart amongst the squalor of their lives.
Dillon provides a voiceover throughout the film, reading extracts from Bukowski's writing in a suitably wry, laconic style. Unlike many voiceovers, this one really works – it's not there to help to prop up the narrative, but gives in an insight into both Bukowski's view of the world and shows what exactly Henry is writing as he sits in his apartment scribbling in his notebook. Factotum does everything it can not to get itself noticed – it's slow, deadpan, reflective and thoughtful, but like Chinaski himself, rises from a sea of mediocrity to become something quietly great.