"Barfly" is a boozy, bleary-eyed comedy by writer Charles Bukowski, a California cult poet whose career as a drunk was punctuated with back-alley brawls and his own pithy quatrains. Bukowski moved in a noir-colored world, intoxicated with the buzzing neon beer signs, wobbling bar stools and the stink of stale cigarettes. He could be Rod McKuen's evil twin.
It's no surprise that the low life that inspired Bukowski has energized Mickey Rourke, who triumphs in his sordid way as Henry, the star of this stomach-churning semibiography. Bloated and staggering, Rourke delivers his tough-guy poesy and picks nightly fights with the beefy bartender (Frank Stallone) of his favorite hangout, "The Golden Horn -- A Friendly Place."
"He symbolizes everything that disgusts me -- unoriginal macho energy, ladies' man," says Henry of the man he loves to hit. It's de'classe' Harvey Pekar -- beard-stubble realism for bottom feeders with strong stomachs and open minds. In Scene 1, blood and snot pour out of Henry's nose, and blood from his opponent's face sluices down his elbows. Then he passes out in his cruddy clothes.
And yet, he finds romance, with a ruined, existential sort of woman with liquor in her veins and long, bruised legs. Wanda, played by Faye Dunaway, finds Henry's scabby knuckles and rolling gait beautiful. She is an elegant sot, still attractive despite her pasty, bloated face and red-rimmed, almond eyes. It's hard to believe that this wasp goddess could love Henry, but Dunaway convinces us that she does. She has finally lived down the coat hangers to come back from "Mommie Dearest."
The patrician actress comes along late, but in time to give a desperate dignity to this repellent portrait. She's a relief, a blessed balance, in her touching, deeply felt performance. She wakes like a child from a bad dream. "Henry, I'm gonna die," she frets, mistaking the Mobil Oil Pegasus across the alley for the angel of death. And even though she's brained him with her pocketbook, there's Henry with a shot and hug to comfort her. It's a moment made all the sweeter for the lonely lives they led before they found each other.
Just when things are going rather well, a refined literary editor (Alice Krige) also becomes smitten with Henry. She publishes his stories in her art magazine, probably a pretentious intellectual rag, and then falls into bed with him and his boxer shorts from hell. Wanda finds out and literally tears out her long, rich-girl hair.
This cat fight on skid row is as preposterous as the script as a whole, an absurdist, steroid-induced fantasy dreamed by a Norman Mailer clone. The notions are those of a perpetual adolescent who has created a comedy of quirks and kinks that is caught somewhere between "Choose Me" and "Liquid Sky." It's depravity as art, revivalist nihilism from an aging punk. "Henry and Wanda refuse to accept the living death of acquiescence," writes Bukowski. "This film is a focus on their brave madness." Seems to me they were a pair of hung-over rejects from the bus depot.
Rourke's performance recalls Chris Elliott's Marlon Brando impersonation on "Late Night With David Letterman." After one scummy role after another, Rourke finally stops taking himself so seriously. Instead of the usual Neanderthal, he treats us to a sensitive, likable blob with a sense of humor. Now if we could only throw him in a shower.
French filmmaker Barbet Schroeder, a Bukowski zealot, spent seven years bringing this grungy portrait to screen. Robby Muller, the great cinematographer, captures the subterranean subculture too well, like a bum searching the trash for leftover sandwiches. It is, however, riveting in its awful way, like "The Fly" with drinks.
Barfly, at area theaters, is rated R for profanity.