August 31, 2006

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Factotum (R)
Matt Dillon reminds the world that he's more than just Johnny Drama's brother with Factotum, an entertainingly self-important movie about a drunken writer and the many jobs and women he loses.

Henry Chinaski (Matt Dillon) might be a Melville, a Hemingway, a literary giant of his generation or he might be an alcoholic loser who consistently puts the need for a drink above the need to, say, finish a day's work. (A couple of times, he's fired from a job by a boss who must first go looking for him at the bars in the middle of an afternoon.)

This state of affairs doesn't seem to bother Henry nearly as much as it does, say, his working-class parents or his landlords. Joblessness also doesn't tend to bother Henry's women all that much (he in turn seems to approach them with the same easy-come-easy-go attitude). Jan (Lili Taylor) is a fellow drunk and, as far as we can tell, pretty much a professional barfly. She'll go home with whoever buys her a drink and when she and Henry are together, she has a tendency to cheat on him whenever she suspects (or pretends to suspect) that he might be cheating on her.

During one of Henry's longer breakups with Jan, he briefly dates Laura (Marisa Tomei), another bar fly. These people are connected almost solely by alcohol and are so completely dependent on drunkenness that it is almost enough to keep them together. Henry works when he has to and then spends almost all of whatever he earns on liquor (briefly, he is able to improve his class of liquor thanks to some luck at the tracks). The women are almost always the ones to take him in. They let him stay in their dilapidated apartments and eat what little food they have and spend any bit of money (a check for almost a whole day's work, for example) touring the bars. When the money or booze runs out, they break up or sometimes they break up just because there's nothing left to do with each other.

Through it all, Henry writes. He writes with a pen on notebooks and, when his writings coalesce into a story, he sends it to a publisher. What does the literary world think of him? He never lives at one address long enough to get a response. Not that this seems to bother him. As he describes in the narration that makes up the inner dialogue of this generally not talkative character, he writes because he needs to, because he has the same burn for it that he does for the liquor. Whether its' any good, whether it's saleable — these are problems he's happier not thinking about.

Factotum has the satisfying feel of a good short story. There isn't much character development here; little changes in Henry's personality or outlook. The story doesn't follow him through different seasons of his life, just this one booze-soaked season. It's a time that exists after the period where drunkenness is part of a rambunctious youth and before the period where drunkenness kills you — this is some hazy, subdued middle age where the people, apartments and jobs that go along with his life style all feel dirty, grim and foreshadowing of disaster. The story is in a holding pattern during this drunken ramble and as a result we get a chance to really study Henry. We come to know the contours of his booze-burnt face and the slope of his shoulders. He has a wry sense of humor and there are times when we can almost see what makes him almost instantly attractive, despite his lack of, well, anything, to the women that he meets.

Factotum is an actor's amusement park and Dillon throws himself into the fun. After years of There's Something about Mary and Herbie Fully Loaded, Dillon seems to enjoy getting to show off his more actorly side in this almost play-like story. The other actors turn in equally boozy and downtrodden performances and every now and then the script tosses off a little observation or two about society and the underclass as a whole. For all the gloom, the movie leaves you with a half-smile and a bit of the lightness that comes from watching people enjoy doing a job at which they excel. B

— Amy Diaz


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