Almost twenty years ago Barbet Schroeder wrestled with Charles Bukowski in the film "Barfly," and lost, as they say, by making his protagonist Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke) into an out-of-control bully who wore us down and bored us to death. Now Norwegian director Bent Hamer (the fascinating, exceedingly dry comedy-of-sorts "Kitchen Stories") has tried again, with Bukowski's novel "Factotum." This time we get a completely different Chinaski, Bukowski's fictional alter ego, from that of Rourke in the first film. As played by Matt Dillon, Chinaski is a passive, inward man whose jobs and relationships always come second to his incessant fiction-writing.
Never mind that he hasn't sold anything, that for years his mail is top-heavy with rejections. Never mind that he's an alcoholic who can't keep a job, usually because he takes his work breaks at a bar and doesn't manage to get back till the next day. Dillon narrates these episodes in voiceover, with a quiet acceptance of his life, a life that refuses to either fight or run; what is, is what will be. And at least two women, Jan and Laura (Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei) are more than willing to share his life without asking him to change.
The film is episodic rather than structured by acts that would play out as an arc leading to a climax; this is both its strength and its weakness. It is a strength because it so accurately reflects what is real about this alcoholic's life: events have neither antecedents nor effects. They simply exist, happen, and end. It is a weakness because it trivializes the meaning of the lives it shows us. There is a death in the film, but it is only a momentary shock; life, or at least Henry's, will go on.
But the film does cover what would ultimately be the defining moment in Bukowski's (or Chenaski's) life: his first acceptance from Black Sparrow Press, leading to the advances and royalty checks that would give him the time and space to write as he chose for the rest of his life. Again, though, in Henry's weary narration, the money takes its place along with everything else; it is no more, and no less, than he expected all along.
Dillon's dry, weary delivery keeps us from finding any personality inside his character. I understand his (or director Hamer's) choice, but it also drains the film of both power and insight. In his fiction, Bukowski could give us the moment - stark, horrific, even cosmically funny - but he never could give us the whole life. In the same way, the film "Factotum" will not, perhaps cannot, give us quite enough; it teases, hints, shows, but never reveals.