Bent Hamers Factotum -- which is primarily based on Charles Bukowskis semi-autobiographical novel of the same name -- may not fully satisfy hardcore fans of the late German-born pote maudit, but then, they perhaps wouldnt be called Bukowski fans if were satisfied with anything. The skid row author was infamous for defying societal norms so he could create and live by his own rules, where he found poetry in lifes daily trials and tribulations. His North American followers might be surprised to learn that along with France his work is also much respected in Scandinavia. But if one is to consider the sort of characters that populate Aki Kaurismki films, it almost makes sense.
And speaking of the Finnish auteur, Norwegian Hamer has applied his trademark droll, deadpan tone to Factotum. Even the clean, uncluttered, pared-down images recall Kaurismki, not to mention a few others from the region. (Theres also a Jim Jarmusch connection: Hamers co-writer and producer is Jim Stark, who worked in a similar capacity with the Amerindie maverick.) A "factotum" is someone who performs a wide variety of jobs, usually in a subordinate role, a description which befits Bukowskis alter ego Henry "Hank" Chinaski (Matt Dillon). Hes seen working a plethora of menial jobs (ice crusher, pickle sorter, brake shoe fluid dispenser, etc.), making, and being satisfied with, just enough to fulfill his true pleasures: alcohol and women (in that order). The former eventually leads to the latter as he ends up in the bed of someone who appears to be his soulmate: Jan (Lili Taylor), a fellow alcoholic whos also living on the margins of society . (A sample of Chinaskis musings after a hard night of sex and booze: "[Jan] was an excellent @#%$. She had a tight @#%$. She took it like a knife that was killing her.")
But after Chinaski makes a few bucks at the race track, his relationship with Jan starts to suffer (we learn that he "@#%$ better as a bum"). She moves on. Chinaski practically ends up on the streets, once again. Then he comes across another oddball: Laura (Marisa Tomei), an upscale hooker of sorts with a French sugardaddy named Pierre (Didier Flamand) who houses lost and damaged young women. (Actress Adrienne Shelly, who plays one of those women, was recently murdered in her Manhattan apartment. She was best known for her work with filmmaker Hal Hartley.) Pierre dies. Chinaski reunites with Jan. Then he loses her again. He works a few more dead-end jobs. He loses them, too. Life goes on. But no matter what, Chinaski never stops writing. Poems, short stories, novels -- anything which relieves the tension of the "words bubbling inside him." He continues to send his stuff to a publisher he admired, but expected nothing in return. He simply loved his art.
Much like the novel, Factotum progresses through a series of vignettes, gradually revealing (and deepening) Chinaskis outlook on life. Hamer skillfully employs his protagonists razor-edged, almost sardonic voice-over narration to connect the dots. While it wouldve been interesting to see how Sean Penn approached Chinaski (he was the first choice for the role), Dillon aptly applies his laid-back persona and method of delivery, seemingly contemplating each word that comes out of his mouth, thus imbuing the character with a certain world-weariness. (Not surprisingly, Mickey Rourkes Chinaski was wild and extravagant in Bukowski-scripted Barfly , a fine film in its own right.) But Hamer and Dillon dont quite end up creating a sympathetic figure either; no matter how much of a low-life be became, he still walked across the room like he was "hot @#%$," which is how one character puts it. Both Taylor and Tomei are wonderful in supporting roles.
Along with being an affecting individual portrait, Factotum also works well as a film about life in the underbelly of our society, where a working poor is never far away from outright homelessness. And anyone not willing to submit to the 9-to-5 grind is inexplicably shunned and marginalized. Chinaski perhaps wouldnt have had it any other way, though; its possible that he not only @#%$ better as a bum, but wrote better as one also. His motivations had their own private logic. And the film recognizes that in a late episode: while the early morning sun still serves as an inspiration for an old drunken black man (with whom Chinaski ends up spending time on the street after getting kicked out from a workplace for, what else, drinking); to find his, Chinaski simply heads for the local strip-joint.
*FACTOTUM had its international premiere at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight). The film was distributed in the U.S. by IFC Films.
*Now available on DVD from IFC Films/Genius Ent. Also available in the U.K. (Icon Home Ent.).