Factotum n. a man who performs many jobs. So reads the white-on-black text at the beginning of this movie adaptation of the first novel in Charles Bukowski’s Factotum trilogy, in a sense a self-parody as it looks at an author struggling for work, acceptance, success and personal fulfilment.
The main character goes by the name of Henry (Hank) Chinaski, a slow moving loner played by Matt Dillon who drifts from one job to another, aided usually by alcohol related dismissal. He also lurches from one woman to another, though one face keeps turning up on his list of conquests, that of Jan (Lili Taylor), with whom he strikes not only an obviously sexual connection but an emotional one too.
Chinaski gets through jobs quicker than you or I would hot dinners – in fact the only other thing he does quickly is drink beer. Or spirits. For this film doesn’t just smell of alcohol, it reeks of it. You can’t wash it out of your soul for hours afterwards. However it provides Chinaski with temporary solace, giving him a vehicle to pick up girls. The writer is at a permanent crossroads in his life, waiting indefinitely for a newspaper to pick up one of his short stories, in particular the Black Sparrow Press, whom he bombards weekly with new material. While he waits he moves in with Jan, splits up with her and moves in again. The two crave companionship and seem incapable of living together without overindulging. In a memorably funny sequence Chinaski goes to the toilet, vomits and cracks open a beer, at which point Jan also goes to the toilet, vomits and lights a cigarette, as if they have reached some sort of bile-induced climax together. Romeo and Juliet it ain’t.
As Chinaski moves from a job transporting ice to a role in the local bike factory he awakens a knack for gambling with Manny (Fisher Stevens), which sees him into more expensive clothes. Jan is not impressed and Taylor’s disdain is well observed, making the point that money can change all that’s attractive about a human. Dillon is the film’s focal point, initially unrecognisable as he enters behind safety goggles with a good three days’ growth, but the ghosts of his past performances remain, and before long aggression rears its ugly head encouraged by Taylor.
Although at times moving, this is an intensely frustrating film and for that credit should go to Dillon. I couldn’t help wondering if he is too conventionally good looking for the role. A soft, unfocussed drawl and apparent readiness to accept his lot makes you want to shake him. His dalliance with Laura, a woman who’s been round the block more times than you’d care to mention, works thanks to Marisa Tomei’s realistic portrayal. Hope surfaces as Chinaski heads for his parents’ house but once again threatens to be dashed in a drunk exchange with his father, who is not impressed by the occasional visitor who is always under the influence.
The feeling persists, however, that there could be a speck of light at the end of this sorry tunnel, and it’s this hope that keeps the film watchable, if harrowing. For anyone feeling affection for Bukowski’s work this is a mandatory watch – for anyone looking for light relief or a film to take a date on I’d advise caution.