'Factotum' and 'Half Nelson': Reading Between the Lines of Literary Lives

Lili Taylor in
Lili Taylor in "Factotum" as Jan, the hard-drinking loner who falls for a writer (Matt Dillon). (By Mark Higashino -- Ifc Films)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 25, 2006

The road of excess leads, if not to the palace of wisdom, at least to a place of redemption in two modest and intriguing films that open today.

"Factotum," based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Charles Bukowski and directed by Bent Hamer, and "Half Nelson," by the promising writer-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, both have at their center writers who, thwarted in their artistic ambitions, turn to the comforts of drink, drugs and sex. The two men's journeys diverge in important ways, as do the stylistic approaches of the films. But both convey a sense of atmosphere and lack of compromise that feel fresh and authentic.

In large part, both movies succeed on the strength of their amazing lead performances. In "Factotum," Matt Dillon -- reminding us of his galvanizing turn in "Crash" and erasing all memories of this summer's regrettable "You, Me and Dupree" -- plays Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's literary alter ego who last made an appearance played by Mickey Rourke in "Barfly." With his hair greased back and a day's worth of stubble shadowing his face, Dillon looks like a man out of time, as much at home in the 1930s as today. "Factotum," which was adapted for the screen by the Norwegian Hamer, in fact transpires in the present day but within a landscape of seedy bars, factories and racetracks that seems frozen in another era.

Chinaski, as he explains in his voice-over narration, is a struggling writer who supports himself in a series of low-paying jobs, none of which he's able to keep. Iceman, pickle factory inspector, inventory manager, custodian -- they all blur together in a miasma of arrogant bosses and battles for back pay.

"All I want to do is get my check and get drunk," Henry says to one boss after being fired. And it's true, he loves to drink, a passion he shares with a fellow loner named Jan (Lili Taylor). Together they embark on a tawdry, toxic folie à deux. Fiery, self-destructive, as needy as she is adamantly independent, Jan inspires Henry but plays into his own worst impulses; their liaison burns with the kind of addictive intensity that can only end in immolation.

But maybe not. Chief among the many pleasures of "Factotum" are its surprises, even in the midst of the monotony of a drunk's life. Unlike "Ask the Dust," a similarly themed film released earlier this year about Bukowski's contemporary John Fante, Hamer's film never quite hews to the expected patterns, whether they have to do with Henry as a lover or as a writer. Although purists may initially be taken aback by the unlikely backdrop of downtown Minneapolis (Bukowski was famously a Los Angeles writer), it works as a generic American Everytown that Chinaski alternately loathes and aspires to dominate.

"Factotum" looks great on the screen, and Hamer has commissioned a terrific musical score from Kristin Asbjornsen, who has set a few of Bukowski's poems to haunting, jazzy music. Marisa Tomei delivers a potent performance as one of Henry's boozy indiscretions, in a squirmy sequence of suggested depravity. Much of "Factotum" is a downer, especially Henry's romanticized view of his dissipation. It's just that implied self-deception -- and the audience's condescending smugness toward it -- that makes "Factotum's" final scene such a shock and a triumph, as Dillon delivers Bukowski's cry of the heart while a stripper does an athletic pole dance in the background. The scene, like the movie, wins you over even as it dares you to keep watching.

"Half Nelson," which stars Ryan Gosling, is more forgiving of its audience, even while plunging it into a similar underworld of self-loathing and suffering. Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a junior high school teacher in Brooklyn who tries to teach his students Hegelian dialectics by day and smokes crack by night. Like Diane Keaton's character in "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," Gosling's Dan seems to be cracking between the pressures of his ideals and a nagging sense of cynicism and futility. He's writing a children's book, but it sits on his coffee table half-finished, under overflowing ashtrays.

The good news in Dan's life is a promising student named Drey (short for Audrey), who is played in a revelatory debut performance by Shareeka Epps. It takes a strong actor to work with Gosling, whose performance here is reminiscent of his spectacular (and little-seen) debut in the 2001 film "The Believer." But Epps, whose watchful inner focus is only enhanced by her beaming smile, shows she's every bit equal to the task as a tough and vulnerable 13-year-old girl caught between the teacher she idolizes and an equally charismatic and protective drug dealer (Anthony Mackie).

Fleck, who directed "Half Nelson" from a script he wrote with Boden, filmed much of the movie with a hand-held camera in Brooklyn, lending the production a vérité immediacy. Clearly this is a world the filmmakers have experienced firsthand, from the rambunctious classroom to Dan's bourgeois liberal parents, who medicate their own dashed dreams with glass upon glass of red wine . Nearly every scene rings with its own ragged truth, which becomes increasingly painful as Dan's addiction becomes more unmanageable and as he refuses to confront the untenable politics of his own behavior.

Like "Factotum," "Half Nelson" is often excruciating to watch, but even more than the former it rewards viewers for sticking it out. Boden and Fleck are too intellectually honest, and Dan and Drey too knowing, for anything as insulting as an unalloyed happy ending. But the tenacity of these two extraordinary characters, and their ultimate commitment to each other, offers at least a wary glimmer of hope.

Factotum (94 minutes, at Landmark's E Street and Bethesda) is rated R for profanity and sexual content.

Half Nelson (106 minutes, at Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row) is rated R for pervasive drug content, profanity and some sexuality.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company