Genius Products // 2005 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // February 12th, 2007
"Even at my lowest times, I can feel the words bubbling inside of me. And I had to get the words down or be overcome by something worse than death. Words not as precious things, but as necessary things. Yet when I begin to doubt my ability to work the word, I simply read another writer, and then I know I have nothing to worry about. My contest is only with myself to do it right, with power and force and delight and gamble." -- Henry Chinaski
As Norwegian director Bent Hamer's (Kitchen Stories) film adaptation of Charles Bukowski's novel opens, Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon, Crash) is employed jackhammering ice, then delivering it by truck to local bars. He'd be grossly incompetent at the job even if he didn't find it nearly impossible to leave a bar after dropping off the ice. Soon he's fired. For the remainder of the film he bounces from one menial job to another, working at a pickle factory, an auto parts warehouse, and in a staid, resplendent lobby where he buffs a huge marble statue called "Vision of Peace." His greatest financial success, though, comes from a scheme he cooks up with Manny (Fisher Stevens, Short Circuit), a coworker at a bicycle supply warehouse. Horse racing aficionado's, the duo takes two-dollar bets from the saps they work with, then pockets the money instead of placing the bets. Chinaski's new wealth only puts him at odds with his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Jan (Lili Taylor, I Shot Andy Warhol), who finds his new suits and ability to pay the rent distasteful. The two break up and Henry meets a drunk named Laura (Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny). Her friend Pierre (Didier Flamand, The Phantom of Liberty) is rich, and Henry soon finds himself swilling expensive scotch and taking day trips on a yacht. Eventually, Henry grows bored with Laura and her dull friends and returns to Jan. Hidden in this meaningless sprawl of activity, is the real story: When Henry isn't working, drinking, fighting, swindling, screwing, or smoking cigarettes, he's writing -- and for Henry Chinaski that's the only thing he does that matters.
In my review of The Charles Bukowski Tapes, I wrote:
"I first read Charles Bukowski as a freshman in college when a buddy shoplifted Factotum, Bukowski's novel about menial, dead-end jobs. Bukowski may be a better poet than prosaist, but my fondest memory of reading him is that introduction to his work. Lying on the single bed in my dorm room, I laughed until it hurt at a vignette in which Bukowski's literary doppelgänger, Henry Chinaski, working as a nighttime janitor, takes a crap in his workplace john, realizes there's no toilet paper handy, uses his own jockeys to wipe himself, then overflows the toilet trying to flush. It sounds crass and stupid, I know, like a gross-out set piece from one of those straight-to-video American Pie sequels Eugene Levy slums in when he's not starring in Christopher Guest movies. But context is everything. Crass humor is a different animal in Bukowski's literary world. In his universe, depravity is the natural state of humanity. Displays of social niceties are pathetic pretenses meant to keep the nihilistic truth from violating the comfortably zoned-out existences of the walking dead who work day jobs, suffer unsatisfying marriages, and spawn children who hate them. This weird blend of silliness and biting bohemian insight is what made Bukowski mandatory reading for undergraduates when I was in college, even though he didn't appear on any class syllabi."
Bent Hamer's film doesn't include the buttwipe scene that caught my adolescent fancy, but it's still loaded with the finely tuned observations of the profound and profane I describe above. When Chinaski's not inflicting extreme genital discomfort on himself through misuse of a pediculocide ointment after picking up crabs from a toilet seat, he's thinking deep and often funny thoughts (to which we're privy by way of Matt Dillon's voiceover narration, cobbled together from Bukowski's poetry and prose) about writing, women, sex, love, booze, death, and the human condition. (Dillon, by the way, does an excellent job. He captures the essence of Bukowski without doing an impersonation. He nails the cadence of the author's voice and the the weird stiff-fingered way he held cigarettes and beers, yet his performance has none of the cartoonish exaggeration of Mickey Rourke's version of Bukowski in Barbet Schroeder's Barfly).
Factotum bears more than a passing resemblance to Schroeder's 1987 film, which was based on an original screenplay by Bukowski. Where Schroeder's film makes an exuberant, grotesque circus of Bukowski's skidrow prose, Hamer's film better captures the writer's matter-of-fact view of alcoholism, squalor, and the ugly essence of the role of the true artist in society (as opposed to the respectable society gadflies who pass themselves off as artists). While ostensibly about Chinaski's driftless existence, Factotum is really a study in his commitment to writing -- a 100% commitment that makes him a disaster in all other aspects of his life. In this way, Factotum is more similar to Schroeder's film than it is to its literary source, which doesn't bother as much with Chinaski's literary aspirations. Hamer's film is still remarkably faithful to the substance and style of Bukowski's oeuvre (an opening title card explains that it's an adaptation of Factotum that borrows liberally from Bukowski's other books, The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through Fire, and The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken over the Ship). The subtext (and sometimes text) of Bukowski's work is always the seedy, dingy, anti-authoritarian and fiercely independent nature of the true artist. Factotum delivers that in spades -- and it's funny, too.
Any movie about Henry Chinaski should look a little gritty. Factotum does, though not in an unpleasant way. It may be a modestly budgeted film, but Hamer didn't skimp on the visuals. Like a modern noir, the movie is set in a Los Angeles landscape of shadows, neon, dive watering holes, low-rent flop pads, and bright sun slicing through window blinds. Chinaski moves through a distinctly American tableau that might just as easily be the present day as the late 1940s and '50s during which Bukowski likely experienced happenings similar to what we see onscreen. All of this dirty beauty is reproduced with clarity and style on Genius Products' DVD. The transfer sports accurate color, respectable detail, and just enough grain to let you know you're looking at something that was shot on celluloid.
The Dolby 5.1 audio track is free of flaws and offers more channels than the picture's soundtrack requires.
A making-of documentary that also provides background on Hamer's filmmaking career in Norway is the primary supplement on the disc. A promotional reel for a CD soundtrack of the sultry, jazz-inflected tunes sung with style by Kristin Asbjørnsen throughout the film is also included, as is a theatrical trailer.
Factotum isn't as good as Factotum, but it's the next best thing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Making-Of Documentary
* Soundtrack Promotion
* Theatrical Trailer