Friday, 29 January 2010

Today's Viewing & Review: Factotum

Factotum (A Man Who Performs Many Jobs)

Firstly, let’s make this clear, I’m coming to this from a standpoint of being unfamiliar with the oeuvre of Charles Bukowski. I can just about muster up some knowledge on the general themes he deals in, but I’m not well-versed by any means.

A factotum is a man who works many jobs, as the full title helpfully informs, and that sums up Hank Chinaski (Bukowski’s alter-ego, played by Matt Dillon). What this soubriquet doesn’t tell us is that his general demeanour and hard-drinking means that each position tends to be short-lived.

Through the constant fug of chain-smoked cigarettes lies a pretty sparky script at its heart; full of bitterness and despair at the human condition, laced with pitch-black humour. Dillon’s red-faced, crumpled Chinaski embodies the struggling writer and his narration lends the film an authentic voice, holding it together as it takes massive progressive leaps and writes-off vast swathes of plot in voiceover. The laconic drawl casts the character as near-emotionless when interacting with others - which fits perfectly with the constant, quietly inebriated state. The film never opts to preach to us about the pitfalls of such an existence. Aside from losing the odd job, Chinaski is a functioning alcoholic. As impassioned and tortured an artist as he may be, it’s his inherent personality which makes him dislikeable and not the fact he’s plied with booze.

Other characters come off less well. Lili Taylor (the go-to girl for this sort of thing, looking like Evangeline Lilly’s older sister after a particularly rough night) and Marisa Tomei (beginning her unofficial late-noughties, chest-baring trilogy of indies) get nothing to do with their thankless ‘girlfriend’ roles, merely acting as brief ciphers through which we can see Hank’s character.

Considering the fairly squalid existence it portrays, the film has a glossy digital look which is bright and crisp, making it distracting and ill-befitting. The look, and feel, of it never seems to capture a real sense of booze-soaked excess. As a film, it’s hard to warm to. It’s not biting enough to succeed as a cult curio (à la Withnail & I or Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas), but not conventional enough to relate to on a facile level. Despite generally good direction from Norwegian director Bent Hamer, a solid script and fine central performance, it’s too segmented to consider a complete success. The momentum of constantly moving from job-to-job and character-to-character robs the film of any consistency and leaves you ultimately uncaring.

It was certainly an entertaining watch but it seems to be a deliberate attempt to create a film with instant cult appeal, failing to get the balance right and misunderstanding the very nature by which films gain this status.


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