Matt Dillon as Henry Chinaski
Lili Taylor as Jan
Fisher Stevens as Manny
Marisa Tomei as Laura
Didier Flamand as Pierre
Adrienne Shelly as Jerry
Karen Young as Grace
Tony Lyons as Tony Endicott
Directed by Bent Hamer
“Factotum” is an existentialist indie film about the loneliness of the human condition, which is normally the cinematic equivalent of having a hole drilled in your head. I don’t really mind existentialist films about the loneliness of the human condition. I do mind drudgery.
Based on the novel by Chuck Bukowski (“Barfly”), “Factotum” features Matt Dillon as Bukowski’s alter ego Henry Chinaski. Like Bukowski himself, Henry is a drunk and a writer, in that order, who crafts autobiographical stories with titles like “My Beerdrunk Soul is Sadder than All the Dead Christmas Trees in the World.” Henry bounces around from job to job, girl to girl and circumstance to circumstance – a literal and figurative factotum – aimlessly and purposelessly; often because of his inability to give in to the control of others, either because of personal integrity or sheer apathy. It’s unclear whether this is a result of his drinking or the other way around.
Norwegian director Bent Hamer works as hard as he can to put the audience in Henry’s apathetic state of mind, unwilling or unable to summon care or interest about anything, theoretically so that they will feel what he feels about his situation and through that shared empathy gain some sort of understanding about his life. The good and bad news is that he completely succeeds at the task.
“Factotum” as a film is often as undriven as its lead is. It meanders about from moment to moment, often only saved from being irrevocably boring by its very dry and often funny wit. Dillon is extraordinarily good as Chinarski; he often seems to be channeling Bukowski with his nasal voice and laid-back delivery. It seems like there is something important and meaningful lurking just below Henry’s surface, Henry certainly seems to think there is, but he lacks either the ability or the desire to bring it forward. That pretty much sums up “Factotum” as a film as well.
It’s not terrible, many of the individual sequences – such as Henry returning for a short time to live with his parents, revealing his contentious relationship with his father and perhaps where his problems with authority stem from – are strong in and of themselves, particular benefiting from strong performances from an excellent supporting cast. But it doesn’t fit together very well. It feels more like a slapped-together collection of short stories than any sort of coherent narrative.
It seems to be almost intentionally pointless, which may in fact be the point of it, but if it is Hamer and company could have gone about making it in a better way.