Monday, October 1, 2007

Movie Review : Matt Dillon in Bukwoski's "Factotum"

On the DVD extras of "High Fidelity" director Stephen Frears says that he puts the greatest amount of energy into casting his roles. What a shame that Bent Hamer, who directed "Factotum" based on the Charles Bukowski novel of the same name , couldn't have listened to that advice when he cast Matt Dillon to play Henry Chinaski. And as "Factotum" is almost exclusively concerned with Chinaski, this is a bit of a problem.

Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's literary alter ego, is gruff, angry, sensitive, dirty, terribly ugly, scarred, big, mean, drunk and always drinking or otherwise next morning blood and sweat and hangover puking. He's also a womanizer who will hit a woman, a woman lover who is clearly stuck everyday with the fact he's also poetic, romantic, vulnerable and fiercely anti-social. Matt Dillon, on the other hand, is ... well, he's pretty. And that's about it. Ok, he has Chinaski's size maybe.

Watching Chinaski in the pickle factory for instance could have been interesting, funny, something. Except that because Dillon is not nearly as fine an actor as we might hope at this point in his career, you watch the movie constantly aware that it is Matt Dillon the actor pretending to work in a pickle factory. And assuming this isn't a post-modern take on "Factotum" (and thank god it's not), seeing a Hollywood movie star pretend to be a laborer, it's a bit hangover inducing actually and just about exactly the opposite of what you're looking for out of a Bukowski piece. Bukowski being the kind of writer who never went to writing school, who worked in pickle factories and post offices to make ends meet, to allow him to write his poetry and prose every night in rented rooms in the worst parts of Los Angeles.

Lowering your voice and gaining some weight may be considered impressive acting in some circles but, unfortunately, Dillon would have also need emotional range to successfully play this part. Here then is a short list of some of the emotions and human expressions Dillon would have needed. A simple 'yay' or 'nay' is provided to illuminate to the reader which Dillon could get and which he could not: anger (nay), humor (nay), vulnerability (nay), passion (nay), sensitivity (nay).

A director who can miscast this badly (though I suspect the project came to Hamer after Dillon attached himself to the project) is flawed in other ways too. Because while Factotum is a book about the character Chinaski, it's also a book about a man who goes from one crap menial job to another, forever quitting or getting fired. And while most of the novel takes place in the drunken days and weeks between jobs, it also crucially gives us moments inside those crap pickle factory jobs. Hamer, however, never really shows us the work. Never shows us Chinaski getting down and dirty with the work. Instead he just shows us Chinaski getting fired from jobs. But without showing us how lousy these minimum wage jobs are doesn't give the audience any reason to side with Chinaski or understand why he keeps quitting. Nor does it give us the best part of all - the chance to enjoy the big fuck you that Chinaski/Buksowki was constantly giving the system (in his fiction anyway), a fuck you that all us working stiffs need to live out, at least vicariously from time to time.

Handsome as Dillon may be, watch the movie and tell me how much you believe the Hollywood star writing poetry every night. And I mean poetry people might actually want to read.

To be fair "Factotum" has the odd moment that actually works. Despite having maybe the worst sense of humor in Hollywood (he rivals Keanu Reeves, oh yes!) Dillon manages to even have a couple funny moments. (That the movie should have had ten times this amount is a different story.) Also, Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei show us what really great actors do, truly getting lost in the roles as Chinaski's white trash lovers.

The only real fun "Factotum" provided came after exiting the theatre and playing the 'who should have actually played Chinaski/Bukowski' game with my wife?

Suggestions we came up with included:

John C. Reilly
Russel Crowe
Joaquin Phoenix
Mickey Rourke (he played Chinaski in Barfly, why not give it another go?)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (give my wife credit for that one)


  1. Hasselhoff. Definitely Hasselhoff. You ever see that video his daughter took of him? He wouldn't even have to try to act. He would just nail it, and don't try and tell me he never worked menial part-time jobs.

  2. Scott, just saw this. It brings tears to my eyes, the way you speak so eloquent of the great David that is Hasselhoff. I take it you have German roots.


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