Dec 23, 2009

FACTOTUM (Dir. Bent Hamer. 2005.)

Factotum tells the fictional story of Hank Chinaski, the alter-ego of the American author Charles Bukowski, who sadly passed away from leukaemia in 1994. Hank Chinaski is wonderfully portrayed by the very talented Matt Dillon. Dillon is a great character actor, and it’s a shame we don’t see more of him in this kind of role. His performance in Drugstore Cowboy is perhaps his finest, but this is as close as he has come to that high point in a great many years. Yes, he was in There’s something about Mary, but this is where he seems more at home.

Hank is the classic film drifter, but rather than drifting from town to town he drifts through his own life at a less than leisurely pace, unwilling to commit to anything lest it interfere with his primary goal of becoming an established writer. He tells people he is a writer, thinking it gives him some kind of prestige but he’s unable to back up his claims with anything substantial. He lacks all the social graces one associates with an educated wordsmith; in fact he’s a prime douche from head to toe. He’s an everyman, with an inability to keep even the most rudimentary menial dead-end job because deep down he doesn’t want to. He’s routinely fired, or walks out, and even disqualified before he even gets the job.

If he was your friend, you’d be ashamed of him. If you’re not his friend you’d cross the street to avoid him. We all know a Hank Chinaski, some of us may even be Hank Chinaski.

Hank finds temporary solace from his failures with an emotionally unstable and permanently broke alcoholic woman called Jan, played by Lili Taylor. Their relationship is dysfunctional at best, based on mutual selfishness. “I bought her a drink and she gave me her phone number. Three days later I moved into her apartment.” It’s not deep, nor meaningful, but they are a perfect couple despite their differences. As it develops it gets more complicated and forces Hank to make a decision, a thing he rarely does.

He also manages to befriend Laura, the always attractive Marisa Tomei, in a pre-Wrestler role. Laura takes him in hand and leads him willingly down new avenues of previously unexplored uselessness. I got the impression Hank was searching for a muse, but was looking in all the wrong places in case he accidently found one, and couldn’t live up to the expectations such a relationship would put on him. If he wasn’t such a douche I’d have thought: Poor Hank.

Dillion also narrates from time to time, giving us an insight into the mind of a dreamer, and it’s at these moments that I realized the man does indeed possess some wisdom that is worth sharing with the world at large. The narration succeeded in making him a little more endearing than he was initially. This is where the film’s strengths lie, and is the reason it’s successful. If it was simply a sketch show of a dead beat clown that we are not laughing with, but at, then it would fail to hold the attention for very long. The narration raises it above its flaws; at times it is profoundly moving, optimistic and pessimistic all at once. I’m guessing these are words lifted directly from the writings of Charles Bukowski, whom Time magazine dubbed the poet “laureate of American lowlife”, but I can’t be sure. What I am sure of is that these moments of pathos come from the heart, and consequently tell us more about Hank than anything he says or does in the film.

The film has occasional moments of real comedy. At one stage, although never feeling compelled to fully empathise with Hank the loser, I did give the guy my sympathies. It is probably the film’s most outright comedy moment, and involves an irritated Hank getting attended to by his woman after he realizes he has got some new and unwelcome friends in his pants. Not a pleasant image, I know, but there’s nothing like seeing someone else’s misfortune to warm the heart. Dillon somehow manages to play it straight, despite being the butt of the joke.

Elsewhere, the film plods along at the same pace as Hank, never reaching great heights but it did consistently entertain me, even making my own life seem majestic and desirable by comparison.

If you want to know if there is a happy ending, or even if Hank deserves one, then you’ll have to watch it.

Click on the link below to watch the trailer on YouTube, but bear in mind it’s been edited for an American audience and so makes it appear a lot more gag-filled than it really is.

I liked it enough to buy it, and look forward to another viewing.
My two and a half stars rating may seem like a low mark, but bear in mind that’s 50 out 100, or 1 out of 2. Not too shabby.

** ½ out of 5

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