A beat movie that's off the beat

'Factotum,' starring Matt Dillon, is based on the book by Charles Bukowski.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Charles Bukowski once said, "Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must live."

As if to demonstrate this notion, we have "Factotum," starring Matt Dillon and based on the misfit writer's 1975 novel. Of course, craziness in a Bukowski book is all a matter of interpretation. As with Ken Kesey and Henry Miller, Bukowski's craziness is really sanity – a rebel yell against the establishment. The true crazies in Bukowski's universe are the people who run the show, the ones who live ordered, respectable lives.

Bukowski is essentially a comic writer; his lead characters have no other agenda except to drink and write. He's not out to reform anybody, least of all himself. Even sex is something of an afterthought in his semiautobiographical novels. It gets him into trouble (which he likes), but it eats up valuable boozing and scribbling time (which he dislikes).

Recommended: Default

In "Factotum," Dillon plays Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's alter ego, and he captures something of Bukowski's hangdog surliness. With his matted hair and bearded, filled-out cheeks, he even resembles the writer – more so than Mickey Rourke did in "Barfly" or Ben Gazzara in "Tales of Ordinary Madness," two earlier and equally fine Bukowski adaptations.

Dillon is funny in ways we've haven't seen before. That gravelly monotone of his fits the role perfectly; it sounds like the voice of someone who has transformed the hangover into an art form. Since Henry narrates the movie, we have plenty of time to savor his sloughs.

Most of Henry's time away from bars is spent getting fired from mundane jobs at pickle factories and taxi companies. (In a supreme act of chutzpah, he asks the boss who fired him to call him a cab.) He talks a lot about his writing and dutifully sends his unsolicited stories to magazines, where they are promptly rejected. He has brief flings with women who appear to be female versions of himself. One of the more extended confabs is with Jan (Lili Taylor), who shares his shoddy apartment and makes him pancakes for dinner.

Is Henry an artist? Since we are made aware of the inglorious fame in his future, we are supposed to think so. Bukowski certainly was. But the co-writer and director, Bent Hamer, doesn't make Henry's artistry a condition for our acceptance of him. Henry's outsider appeal is based on his ordinary madness, his rejection of all things bourgeois. In the film's view, this is the starting point of all artistry.

Hamer is Norwegian – his previous film was the marvelous deadpan comedy "Kitchen Stories" – and so he is something of an outsider, too. His languorous, off-kilter style, like a slow jazz riff that is always a beat off the beat, is perfectly suited to the poetic grogginess of Henry's mindscape.

Bukowski has always been more revered overseas than in America. He represents a grungy, primordial type that is often regarded abroad as quintessentially American. (Talk about a backhanded compliment.) In "Factotum," Hamer is saying to us, "We appreciate these guys more than you Americans do."

Maybe so, but "Factotum" is so sly and low-key hilarious that anybody can be in on the joke. Grade: A–

Rated R for language and sexual content.

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