Few relationships have been as lengthy and loving as the steamy affair between moviegoers and drunken degenerates. It is a challenge for a character to capture our collective imagination in the same way that the hard-livers (or hard-livered, as the case may be) have. Paul Newman’s “Fast Eddie” Felson, James Dean’s Jim Stark and Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski, to name just a few, have done more to shape conceptions of masculinity and the human struggle than any teetotaling, morally upstanding hero ever could have. Hank Chinaski (Matt Dillon), the beer-swilling, chain-smoking protagonist of Bent Hamer’s “Factotum,” however, seems a pale imitation of those great drunkards who came before him.
Factotum, we learn from the opening credits, refers to “a man of many jobs.” The film follows Chinaski as he drinks his way through menial occupation after menial occupation. He carries on in an unfulfilling way with Jan (Lili Taylor) and Laura (Marissa Tomei), but never changes in the process. The film’s loosely structured series of vignettes, each ending with a disappointingly anticlimactic confrontation between Chinaski and The Man, fade to black and leave us with a voiced-over narration and little else to illuminate our antihero. Indeed, the film’s dialogue is generally sparse and predictable. While an occasional one-liner or deadpan remark about venereal disease helps keep us engaged in the dark comedy, Chinaski’s frequent monologues about the nature of existence in the wasteland of modernity seem like unnatural and forced vestiges of a more thoughtful film left on the cutting-room floor.
The character of Chinaski first appeared in Barbet Schroeder’s “Barfly” (1987) and serves as the alter ego of the late, notoriously debauched author Charles Bukowski, whose autobiographical 1975 novel of the same name is the basis for Hamer’s film. In “Factotum,” Bent and Jim Stark, the screenwriters, seem to have failed to adapt the language to fit their lead. Dillon is neither skuzzy enough to embody the derelict nor thoughtful enough to channel the writer. Where Mickey Rourke, the appropriately disreputable prince of sleaze, seemed a perfect choice for Chinaski in his earlier incarnation, in Bent’s film, Dillon is ostentatiously grungy but ultimately overly sleek. Even when unshaven and dressed in a filthy undershirt, Dillon fails to evoke the sort of world-weary disgust that we have come to expect from the recent crop of fallen leading men — Nick Nolte, Nicholas Cage and Billy Bob Thornton.
To make up for his underdeveloped lead, Bent resorts to seldom-funny slapstick and sight gags — Chinaski fighting a diminutive pickle-store employee, leaving an ice truck open, and struggling with crabs (yes, those kinds of crabs). In fact, part of what makes the comedic elements of “Factotum” ineffective to the point of frustration are their complete incongruity in the aesthetic space of the film. Frequently, the camera remains static for almost excruciating periods of time, a technique long associated with art house and East Asian cinema. Here, however, the camera merely lingers on the unworthy object of the next joke. In the opening sequence, when a truck driven by Chinaski prepares to pull away from a gas pump to which it is still attached, Bent finds it necessary to hold our gaze fixed on this supposedly hilarious example of apathetic rebellion. Editing minimalism of this nature makes the film lag, distending its respectably concise 94-minute runtime into an eternity.
For a movie that ostensibly concerns itself with masculinity, “Factotum” is unexpectedly at its most compelling when dealing with women. Although Dillon is a disappointing nonentity, Bent gets strong performances from the two fallen women in Chinaski’s life. While the camera never succeeds in turning Dillon into a bum who belongs to the abject cityscape, Bent abuses his female leads with a mixture of unnatural lighting and unflattering makeup to create the illusion of true misery. Tomei, bandaged and disheveled, is hardly recognizable upon our first viewing and remains difficult to identify for her all-too-brief time on screen. Lili Taylor’s Jan, Chinaski’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, who lives from bed to bed and drink to drink, speaks more to an inescapably bereft existence than any female lead in recent memory. Sadly, Bent allows her to exist as a mere tangent to the protagonist’s unsatisfying and unmemorable job search — her recurrence brings at least a little pathos and excitement to the otherwise flat narrative. It’s almost enough to leave us wishing for a romantic comedy unmarred by drunks. Almost.