Factotum (based on the novel by Charles Bukowski) tells the story of a man who can’t find a job he likes, but lives instead for his true ambitions of drinking and writing. The film opens with Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon) working in an ice factory. He’s busy cutting blocks with a jackhammer when his boss tells him to take a truck and deliver some ice. However, since his first stop is at a bar, that’s as far as he goes. Not surprisingly, Chinaski’s boss discovers him getting drunk and fires him on the spot. The film’s action is encapsulated by this sort of dysfunctional cycle from which the characters seem unable or unwilling to break. Among his many jobs, Chinaski works in a bicycle warehouse, at a pickle factory and in a museum where his job is to clean dust from the nose of a giant statue. However, the time he spends writing and submitting his work for publication is ultimately more important to him than the gigs he blows. One of the crowning achievements of this film is how it juxtaposes the painful slowness of unemployment with the pathos of Bukowski’s prose. Factotum is a tragedy with occasional comedic elements that mercifully save the viewer from the moralizing that characterizes other less-sophisticated films.
As a corollary to his drinking, Chinaski proves more than adequate at picking up women at dive bars. The first, and by far most important, tryst is with Jan (performed by the underrated Lili Taylor). He moves in with her right away and they spend most of their time drinking, having sex, and throwing up (although not always in that order). Their co-dependence becomes glaringly obvious when she grows jealous of his ability to pick winning racehorses (which, for a time, is their sole source of income). The chemistry between Dillon and Taylor is intentionally mismatched, making their paring seem desperate rather than affectionate. Ultimately Henry and Jan break up, get back together again, and then split for good when she tries to better herself with a millionaire she loathes sleeping with.
Never to be kept celibate for very long, Chinaski immediately picks up Laura (Marisa Tomei) by ordering her a drink and saying, “That drink is my last. I’m broke.” Those who scoffed at Tomei’s Oscar for best actress will find this performance redeeming. She appears nearly a decade older then she actually is and while Laura does come off jaded and opportunistic, Tomei nonetheless retains the charm that’s generally associated with her.
Factotum is a more honest interpretation of Bukowski’s work than earlier films such as Barfly (1987). Because Chinaski is the autobiographic persona of Bukowski, Matt Dillon has to fight his own charisma in order to effectively portray Chinaski’s often despicable behavior. While it’s true that Dillon is too good looking to play Chinaski, he does a nice job of mirroring Bukowski’s mannerisms without going over the top. All in all, I recommend this film not just because it’s entertaining, but also because director Bent Hamer is bright enough to addresses the issues of Chinaski’s pathological depression, rather than just glamorizing drunkenness as an artistic catalyst.