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FACTOTUM ****

By GUY FLATLEY

 

CAST: Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor, Marisa Tomei, Fisher Stevens,
Didier Flammand, Adrienne Shelly, Karen Young, Tom Lyons

DIRECTOR: Bent Hamer

SCREENWRITERS: Bent Hamer, Jim Stark

He’s a boozer. A throwing-up, fucked-up drunk shuffling from one no-brainer job to another, a macho barfly sweet-talking wasted ladies in dusky gin mills, getting laid, smoking like a volcano, waking to waves of nausea, glancing over at the spent body of his latest bedmate, weaving his way to the bathroom, upchucking into the toilet, pulling the chain, flopping onto a chair, belching out something between a whimper and a groan, listening to the not-so-ladylike sound of regurgitation now coming from the john, lighting up, inhaling, exhaling, coughing and, finally, savoring his first drink of the morning.

The boozer is Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon), a delusional--or perhaps visionary--aspiring writer living on the fringes of Los Angeles in the late fifties. And if you think you see an inspirational, twelve-step program in his future, forget about it. The guy doesn’t think he has a problem. He does not view his dipsomania as a flesh-eating, mind-zapping sickness. If anything, he looks upon his drunkenness as a gift, an elixir that enhances his ability to formulate and hone his thesis on what life is really all about.

Henry’s message--by turns lucid and muddled--boils down to this: screw the picture-book American dream of white picket fence, campfire sing-alongs, and the patter of little feet; bring on the broads and the booze; when low on cash, lie and cheat your way to a brief gig; spit in the boss’s eye as soon as you can afford the gesture; revel in all the pleasure and pain that fate provides; and die a stranger to togetherness and social harmony.

Does Henry expect to communicate his message to kindred souls? He has a dim hope, dim because the bulky envelopes he periodically sends to magazine editors seem to vanish without a trace. Still, during his brief binges of sobriety, he continues to put pencil to paper, call upon all the dark rage, humor and memory that’s in him, and shape his hot, raw words and images into an ongoing saga, an eccentric, ribald, chaotic, passionate epic poem.

If Henry Chinaski is beginning to sound like the late Charles Bukowski, the astonishingly prolific cult novelist and poet who lived and wrote in California for most of his oddball, alcohol-fueled life, that’s because Henry is the author’s alter ego in his 1975 novel, “Factotum.” And if you suspect that Bukowski/Chinaski’s raunchy downer of a story is not the stuff from which a strong, exhilarating movie could possibly be made, you’re dead wrong.

Miraculously, Bent Hamer, the quirkily resourceful Norwegian director of “Eggs” and “Kitchen Stories,” proves an inspired choice to tell this picaresque, quintessentially American tale. He lingers just the right amount of time on each scene, artfully balancing the visual and emotional lights and shadows, and he even handles Henry’s occasional voiceovers with deadpan grace.

Best of all, Hamer shows every actor in the impressive cast to splendid advantage. Mercurial Lili Taylor plays Jan, the lady who shares Henry’s bed, barfs in his toilet, and eventually tilts him to a state approaching total lunacy, and she never misses a beat; Fisher Stevens is masterfully laid back as a buddy of Henry’s with an out-of-control criminal streak; and Marisa Tomei gives a pitch-perfect performance as a perpetually tipsy quasi hooker who takes Henry for a cruise to remember on her fruitcake mentor’s yacht.

What you really want to know, though, is how Matt Dillon does as the self-destructive, male-chauvinist-pig ladies’ man who is at the center of every single scene in “Factotum.” Invariably under-rated, he’s never gotten the kind of praise routinely heaped on showboaters like Johnny Depp and Sean Penn, even though he’s been terrific in films as diverse as “Tex,” “The Flamingo Kid,” “Drugstore Cowboy,” “To Die For,” “There’s Something About Mary” and “Crash.” Well, you can forget about those movies for the moment. As Henry Chinaski, Dillon is laugh-out-loud funny, tense, loose, frightening, heartbreaking and mesmerizing. He's an amazing, courageous actor, richly deserving of an Oscar nomination. As of now, he’s got my vote.