By Joe Lozito
On the surface, Bent Hamer would seem like an odd choice to adapt a Charles Bukowski novel. Working from a script he co-wrote with producer Jim Stark, the Norwegian director of 1995's quirky "Eggs" proves to have a knack for capturing the stripped-down absurdity of Bukowski's novel "Factotum". Staging the story of Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon) in perpetually sparse and increasingly dank Los Angeles environments, Mr. Hamer adequately sets a tone of aimlessness and despair. Unfortunately - like its lead character - the film doesn't do much more than drift from one scene to another.
The word "Factotum", a subtitle tells us, means "a man who performs many jobs". And Henry Chinaski, Mr. Bukowski's well-known alter ego, more than lives up to that moniker. Fired from countless jobs - sometimes after less than one day - Chinaski is able to support his girlfriend Jan and his equally demanding liquor habit by playing the horses. At the same time, Chinaski struggles to keep up with his one true passion: writing. The booze, however, constantly gets the best of him, sabotaging anything that even comes close to success.
It's not easy to sustain a film about an aimless addict; "Factotum" is a surprisingly long 94 minutes. Terry Gilliam had a similarly difficult time with "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas". But Mr. Gilliam had Johnny Depp. As Chinaski, Mr. Dillon - unsuccessfully trying to scruffy himself up behind a beard - has a difficult time tapping into the pain and passion that drive an addict. And, despite a few outbursts, Mr. Dillon rarely varies from the same monotone line readings. It's easy to see what attracted the actor to the role; Chinaski is a classic Bukowski creation - alcoholic, self-destructive and at the same time endearing.
More interesting are the women in Chinaski's life: Lily Taylor gives a fine, fearless performance as Jan. Though she is as destructive as Chinaski, there's a fire in Ms. Taylor's performance that makes you think she might have a chance. It's this kind of spark that's missing from Mr. Dillon's portrayal. Marisa Tomei is also surprisingly good as Laura, turning up a heretofore unseen sultriness.
"Factotum" is an admirable attempt to bring Mr. Bukowski's writing to the screen. There are moments that work - like a particularly ugly, hung-over morning in Henry and Jan's apartment - but the film plays more like a series of vignettes than a complete story. Like its lead character, "Factotum" is full of unrealized potential. As you watch it drift aimlessly, you just want it to buckle down and do something constructive - though somehow you know that's not going to happen.