For Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon, Crash), every one of life’s vicissitudes should be pondered over a cigarette and each and every one of life’s successes and setbacks deserves a toast. Attention must be paid.
My Beerdrunk Soul...
Factotum is that rare cinematic feat. It reworks and improves upon its literary source material, in this case a novel of the same name by the poet Charles Bukowski.
In 1975 Bukowski wrote his crude, raunchy, and ribald tale about a man who works simply to afford that next stiff drink. Taking place during World War II, Henry, the book’s quasi-autobiographical main character and protagonist by default, was deemed unfit for military service by a shrink, so he bides his time by moving from coast to coast and points in-between, taking odd jobs in New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and his home base of Los Angeles.
Sometimes he’s a maintenance man, sometimes a shipping clerk, sometimes a janitor. What he really wants to be, though, is a writer. Lacking in ambition and commitment to any one job or employer, Henry’s one consistent motivator is his desire to be published in a classy publication like New Yorker. He is constantly hitting up editors, sending them three or four stories every week; his stories are handwritten because he can’t afford a typewriter.
After countless rejection letters, a little story called My Beerdrunk Soul Is Sadder Than All the Dead Christmas Trees of the World gets purchased. While the buyer wasn’t New Yorker, at least it was another New York-based magazine admired by Chinaski.
Factotum is a dark comedy. It’s not exactly a black comedy, but rather a thoroughly jaded look at the workaday world as seen through the eyes of an alcoholic writer.
The Leaky Faucet of My Doom
The movie version, with a screenplay co-written by the film’s Norwegian director Bent Hamer and producer Jim Stark, takes plenty of liberties with Bukowski’s book.
Most notably, the movie is set strictly in the modern day, and it’s set in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Both are good choices. The time change provides the movie with a fresh sense of immediacy and the setting offers more intimacy.
It’s rare that a movie can tamper with a book quite drastically and still make it work. Other recent examples are The English Patient and Forrest Gump (which, in all fairness, was a truly horrid book). Factotum can now be added to that short list.
To accommodate the singular setting, some of the jobs have also changed. This Henry Chinaski starts out by chopping ice blocks with a jackhammer and later finds himself working in a pickle factory.
The word “factotum,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, means a person “who serves in a wide range of capacities.” According to the movie poster’s tagline, it more precisely means “a man who never had a job he liked; and never kept a job he had.” It’s only appropriate then, that Henry loses a job — as that ice chopper — before the opening credits even start to roll.
Ham on Rye
Seeking more to present the essence of Bukowski and his literary alter ego than a word-for-word adaptation, the movie succeeds thanks to an absolutely top-notch performance by Dillon and excellent turns by his co-stars, Lili Taylor (The Notorious Bettie Page) and Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny), as two of Chinaski’s lovers. Thanks to this cast, the book’s extremely low-key humor finds the right, understated delivery that oftentimes works better on screen than on the page.
One case in point is a little sequence in which Henry and his girlfriend-of-the-moment, Jan (Lili Taylor), try to figure out what time it is. It’s no small task when their apartment’s sole clock gains 35 minutes every hour. In the book, it’s a single paragraph that reads kinda funny. In the movie, it’s a truly amusing bit driven by Dillon’s perfectly strained voiceover.
Dillon really fits snugly into the character’s skin, brandishing a perpetual redness in his face that is hard to distinguish between a working man’s sunburn and a drunk’s blush, and his voice is vaguely similar in tone and pitch to that of another hero to the working class, Bruce Springsteen.
Another tweak that makes the movie work better than the book is the continuing focus on Henry as a wannabe writer, adding voiceover comments about writing and Henry’s insistence that he listen to his own voice rather than those of critics or the mass of untamed readers. Doing so would surely lead to artistic self-destruction, Henry thinks.
Those voiceovers also include some nice observations about how people burn up so much of their lives living in anger and fussing over petty matters.
Beerspit Night and Cursing
In the book, Henry is a man who realizes the notion of the “starving artist” is a hoax. He’s convinced great art is actually made over steak, not on an empty stomach. In the movie, he is indeed a starving artist, but a fairly ambitious one who is repeatedly seen stopping by the mailbox to drop off more stories. That constant drive to write ties the whole movie together nicely, in a way that doesn’t quite happen in the book.
And the movie’s ending, while it does involve a stripper, as in the novel, manages to slide in a truly Henry-esque message that the book lacks. It’s a grandiose message about living life full-tilt; the battle to rise to the level of the gods, in Henry’s view, is the only good fight.
While plenty has been overhauled, many key lines of dialogue are plucked intact, including a biting little dig from Jan to Henry about how wealth (gained from betting on horse races) was changing him. He was no longer the swaggering man she fell in love with, but rather a man who acts “like a dental student — or a plumber.”
Lines like that live or die based on their delivery; in this movie, they live and linger on in the mind.
Granted, the film meanders during its 90 minutes and it’s definitely not everybody’s cup of tea. But it’s a good meandering and it’s a very good cup of tea. At this point, a carefully placed Chinaski-inspired expletive is in order. “Dammit” will suffice.