Replete with low-key lighting, soulful narration and scenes fogged with thick clouds of cigarette smoke, “Factotum” belongs to the genre of independent films that assumes screenplays must be dark and dismal in order to be great.
It’s “amazing how grimly we hold onto our misery,” says Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon, “Crash”), author and “Factotum” screenwriter Charles Bukowski’s fictional alter-ego. Bukowski, whose despondent outlook echoes in every line, is present in every aspect of Chinaski, but “Factotum” doesn’t do the inimitable writer justice.
The film revolves around Chinaski and his droning, melancholy voice. He’s the archetypal writer – chain-smoking, half-shaven and miserably aloof – who drifts from job to job just trying to survive. Whether he’s driving an ice delivery truck or inspecting jars in a pickle factory, Chinaski’s downtrodden attitude and chronic alcoholism usually get him fired.
Chinaski meets Jan (Lili Taylor, “Six Feet Under”), whose love for him extends only as far as the bedroom walls. Their pitifully stagnant relationship is shot when Chinaski’s earnings from the horse races go to his head. Jan’s perceived financial inadequacy is more than she can bear. Chinaski’s short-lived riches quickly evaporate, but the relationship is still destined for failure.
Walking out on Jan means forfeiting a bed to sleep on, so Chinaski picks up Laura (Marisa Tomei, “Alfie”) at a nearby bar. Laura takes him back to her perversely abnormal residence, owned by a wealthy old “gentleman” who gladly takes girls in off the street. The only thing worse than this unsettling love triangle is the mansion’s chintzy d