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Matt Dillon shines as Bukowski's liquor-store cowboy.



I've never been convinced that Charles Bukowski is much more than a bohemian Harper Lee, another decent author whose mystique and legend overcompensate for obvious literary shortcomings. However, I got a nice, pleasant contact buzz from Factotum, Bent Hamer's mellow adaptation of an early Bukowski novel about women, writing, work, and alcohol.

To call the plot "loose" is misleading; it's sort of like saying Peyton Manning has trouble winning big games. The film begins and ends almost arbitrarily, with Bukowski's fictional alter ego Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon) drifting from job to job, bar to bar, and woman to woman while developing his writing style and feebly attempting to preserve some kind of dignity in the grinding, dull, hourly-wage world. The pungent one-liners Bukowski is famous for ("I've probably slept longer than you lived," "I fucked better as a bum," etc.) punctuate scenes and yank the narrative through the urban landscapes of working-class Minneapolis, whose down-at-heel neighborhoods and dive bars form a surprisingly apt backdrop.

To call Factotum a comedy is similarly inapt; the punchlines of many scenes are so far beyond deadpan that the jokes scarcely register until midway through the next scene. So call it a romance, maybe; the bulk of the non-bar, non-job scenes sketch the on-again, off-again romance of sorts between Chinaski and his occasional girlfriend Jan (Lili Taylor). These two actors' refreshing, unglamorous chemistry revitalizes several otherwise clichéd sequences. The screenplay typecasts Jan as a boozy shrew, but Taylor sidesteps her lines and reveals her character through sheer physical presence. Even within Taylor's rich filmography, this performance is memorable; it's the first time I can remember thinking about Lili Taylor as a flesh-and-blood being rather than a "good character actress."

As Chinaski, Dillon carves out a chesty, soft-spoken, endearing brute whose drive to prove everyone wrong is his only real pleasure. Dillon does a great deal with a guy who seems so nonplussed about everything. Gambling doesn't excite Chinaski, sex is a chore, and liquor is about as special to him as the next trip to the john. He's not exactly a character you root for -- his code of honor is impenetrable and he punches Taylor in the face in one scene -- but Dillon's performance is strange and compelling. This is Dillon's best performance since Drugstore Cowboy.

These two fine actors create a Chaplinesque moment when Jan and Henry go downtown to recover a paycheck: Jan casts off her heels in frustration and disgust, and Henry takes off his shoes, puts them on her feet, and walks alongside her to the next bar. It's an anachronistic moment in an odd little movie that serves its shaky source material pretty well.

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