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The Book of Jobs

Bent Hamer tries to lively up Charles Bukowski's bitter novel about the blue-collar grind.


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** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Bent Hamer

Written by Hamer and Jim Stark, from a novel by Charles Bukowski

With Matt Dillon, Lili Taylor, Didier Flamand, and Marisa Tomei

America may be a nation of workaholics, but dramatic movies rarely show the work most of us do. Screenwriters might use a character's job as a kind of shorthand, but the story usually doesn't begin until he gets off work. And if a movie does dig into a particular occupation, you can bet it's an exceptionally glamorous or dangerous one. The vast majority of Americans have jobs that are dull and unrewarding, and they don't need to be reminded of that when they plunk down nine bucks for a movie. As Charles Bukowski wrote in his 1975 novel Factotum, "How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?" Even X-Men: The Last Stand would be easier to watch than that.

Bukowski's bitter appraisal of blue-collar work and its spiritual suffocation makes Factotum a daunting movie property. Henry Chinaski, his fictional alter ego, travels back and forth from Los Angeles to New Orleans, Philadelphia, Saint Louis, and Miami, working an endless series of crap jobs during and after World War II as he tries to make a name for himself writing short stories. He sorts magazines for a distributor, composes type for a newspaper, posts advertising on subway cars, bakes dog biscuits at a factory, chauffeurs nurses to regional blood drives, shovels coconut shavings onto baked goods, and unloads trucks for a luxury hotel. He works shipping and inventory at a ladies' dress-wear shop, a bicycle warehouse, an art-supply store, a Christmas decorations wholesaler, and various light-fixture and auto-parts companies. Sometimes he quits. More often he's fired for slacking off, showing up late, or drinking on the job. None of the jobs means more to him than a cold exchange of his time for a paycheck, and by the end of the novel he's reduced to day-labor gigs from a skid-row agency.

If you've ever suffered through a dead-end job working with dead-end people, the book should strike a resounding chord. Bukowski was a highly observant writer, and he gets it all down: the painstaking projects that stretch into infinity, the physical discomforts magnified in the mind to epic proportions, the seething resentment at watching one's life ebb away in meaningless activity. He captures the pecking order of the minimum-wage workplace, where the top guy on the floor is the person dull enough to have survived the longest, and the petty sex games between men and women, which have less to do with love or desire than amusing oneself until the whistle blows. He lays bare the bromides and psychology of the boss, whose power to hire and fire is just a crumb dropped by those who can hire and fire him. And he shows Chinaski pushing and prodding to determine just how much he can get away with before he's finally sacked.

This material takes up about half the book, and though it's the more distinctive half, screenwriters Bent Hamer and Jim Stark can't quite figure out what to do with it. A movie needs an arc, and the whole point of the novel is that blue-collar life moves in a mercilessly straight line toward the grave. Directed by Hamer and starring a bearish Matt Dillon as Chinaski, the movie adaptation isolates a half dozen of the hero's jobs--enough to earn its title--and dramatizes some of his more memorable skirmishes with small-minded bosses. (It also adds one job to great poetic effect, opening with an image of Dillon as he attacks a gigantic sheet of ice with a jackhammer.) But Hamer and Stark have performed reconstructive surgery, pulling incidents from the other half of the novel and rearranging them into a much more familiar and digestible property--a love story.

Like most of Bukowski's writing, Factotum is thinly veiled autobiography, and much of the action outside the workplace involves his relationship with Jane Cooney Baker, a fellow alcoholic 11 years his senior with whom he lived for several years. His first true love, Baker turns up repeatedly in Bukowski's work, and she served as the basis for Faye Dunaway's character in Barfly (1987), the raucous comedy he scripted for director Barbet Schroeder. In Factotum the movie Baker is renamed Jan and played by Lili Taylor, who doesn't register as much of a personality but makes a more convincing boozehound than the elegant Dunaway. Cutting and pasting episodes from the novel, Hamer nicely dramatizes Chinaski's bleary relationship with Jan as they meet, separate, reunite, and part again for good. In one of the best scenes--created for the movie but deftly reproducing Bukowski's brand of black humor--they wake up in each other's arms, then each goes to the toilet to vomit. Their love for each other is genuine, but a gallon of red wine doesn't hurt.

Any filmmaker who wants to adapt Bukowski has to reckon with Barfly, which has become not only a cult classic but the cornerstone of the author's popular legend as bard of the American underclass. Mickey Rourke, at the butt end of his 80s stardom, gives an absurdly hammy and thoroughly enjoyable performance as Chinaski, whose joyful rebellion against sobriety and daylight seems blessed by the gods when Dunaway's character staggers into his life. The perfect drinking movie, Barfly generated one of the great Hollywood catchphrases--"Drinks for all my friends!"--even though, in the tradition of many great Hollywood catchphrases, those exact words are never uttered on-screen. Unlike Bukowski's cruelly linear Factotum, Barfly travels in a complete circle, beginning and ending at the same tavern as the patrons file into the alley to watch another fistfight.

For Hamer, Barfly must have seemed especially formidable, because its neon glow is antithetical to his source novel's nine-to-five reality. Luckily for him, Dillon wisely ignores Rourke's outsize performance; his Chinaski is quieter and angrier, much closer to Bukowski in real life, and when he sits in a bar with pen and paper you can actually believe he's writing. But in cherry-picking the more filmable episodes from the novel, Hamer and Stark have constructed a sort of poor man's Barfly, with an emphasis on drunken mischief. They also re-create the earlier movie's Horatio Alger subplot when a prestigious literary magazine finally accepts one of Chinaski's short stories, vindicating his talent as well as his alcoholic excess.

That incident appears in the novel, but it occurs a third of the way through and is quickly forgotten. Hamer and Stark have moved it to the very end, where it sets up an inspirational soliloquy. "If you're going to try, go all the way," Dillon proclaims in voice-over as Chinaski sits in a lonely strip joint, watching an exotic dancer. "There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is." The words are Bukowski's, yet they're grafted onto the movie from his 1992 poem "Roll the Dice." No one could begrudge him the hint of self-congratulation--he slugged it out as a writer for more than 20 years before publishing his first book. But the movie's retooling of his novel to bring it in line with the Bukowski myth only reveals that myth's essential paradox: he may have been the workingman's poet, but he was never content to be a workingman.


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