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Even in a country that once attempted to ban alcohol, a stiff drink after a hard day is a widely accepted refuge. It’s rare, however, to find a movie that’s empathetic toward those who go further than that: people like Half Nelson’s Dan, who relieves career stress by smoking crack, or Factotum’s Henry, who decides to skip the job and go straight to the drink. The protagonists of these films, villains by the standards of most American movies, are treated not as heroes but as something more interesting: fully drawn individuals characterized not only by pivotal mistakes but also by their reasons for making them.
Leaving no doubt that it’s a workplace parable, Half Nelson opens with a shot of its central character’s face, accompanied by the sound of an alarm clock. Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) teaches 8th-grade history and coaches girls’ basketball at a school only natives could identify as being in Brooklyn. He’s impassioned about his subject, which he imparts in Hegelian terms, and committed to such figures as Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King Jr. Yet somehow Dan can’t get his class in sync with the official Civil Rights Movement syllabus he’s supposed to be teaching or engage his African-American and Latino students. The only one he seems to be reaching is 13-year-old Drey (Shareeka Epps), who also plays on the team Dan coaches.
One day after practice, Dan curls up in a toilet stall in the empty girls’ locker room and lights a crack pipe. Drey finds him there, a moment that alters their relationship without any substantial words being spoken. Drey’s brother is in jail, keeping his mouth shut to benefit local dealer Frank (the always compelling Anthony Mackie). Frank is cultivating Drey, hoping to enlist her as a drug courier. Dan intends to prevent this, but he lacks a certain moral authority. He is, after all, one of Frank’s customers.
Director Ryan Fleck, who co-scripted Half Nelson with its editor (and his girlfriend) Anna Boden, knows how this sort of fable is supposed to proceed. The earnest white man redeems the at-risk black student and maybe even—like Sean Connery trying out “dawg” in Finding Forrester—picks up some new slang in the bargain. Fortunately for the viewer, Dan is nobody’s idea of a redeemer. He wants to do the right thing, but he just doesn’t have the strength—even when his will isn’t sapped by cocaine or booze. In one of the film’s pitch-perfect scenes, Dan goes to confront Frank, and a battle seems imminent. But then Dan loses his concentration, and Frank offers him a drink. That’s not how things are supposed to work in the movies, but it’s often how they go in life.
The lack of resolution can be a drawback. The movie’s ending is underwhelming, although it’s preferable to the sort of big finish that would have fatally disrupted the fundamental tone. And Fleck indulges himself with the soundtrack, which includes overstated incidental music by Broken Social Scene as well as a few songs that are jarringly out of place. It seems unlikely that Billy Bragg’s “A New England” would be playing at the bar where Dan goes “looking for another girl” he will attempt to charm by denouncing Bush’s lies about Iraq.
Elsewhere, however, the juxtapositions work well. A student’s report on the Attica prison uprising, for example, is followed by Drey’s visit to her brother in jail. These are the sort of links Dan wants his kids to make, even if he’s not sure they make any difference. The child of radical parents who now make embarrassing jokes about “Ebonics,” Dan wants to not only live up to their tattered ideals but also go beyond them into quandaries—such as black–white relations—that decidedly were not settled in the ’60s and ’70s. Sometimes, though, he just needs to slip out the back door and find a place where he can get stoned without anyone asking why.
Instead, Dan encounters Drey, who has lots of questions he should be prepared to answer. The relationship between the half-defeated teacher and his precariously situated student is the film’s crux, requiring subtle work from Gosling (who was stunning as the secretly Jewish neo-Nazi in The Believer) and Epps (who’s making her debut). The performances are utterly natural, seemingly as offhand as Andrij Parekh’s hand-held cinematography. Both are loose and unforced, yet tightly focused when that’s required. Gosling’s Dan is an ideologue who’s not sure he can be fully human; Epps’ Drey is the child who forces him to be. It’s a relationship that moves beyond theory, which is exactly where Dan needs to go.
Charles Bukowski is an American proto-slacker icon, but it’s easy to understand why all the film adaptations of his writings have been directed by Europeans: For all the lowlife rough-and-tumble of his stories and novels, Bukowski’s cool, boozy despair is closer to Camus than, say, Mark Twain. Following Italian Marco Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness, Frenchman Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly, and Belgian Dominique Deruddere’s Crazy Love, Norwegian writer-director Bent Hamer handles Factotum, Bukowski’s 1975 novel, with immaculate restraint. Hamer previously directed Kitchen Stories, a deadpan satire of the Scandinavian psyche, and his detachment suits the desultory exploits of Bukowski alter ego Henry Chinaski, who’s underplayed with stunning authority by a bearded, lumpy Matt Dillon.
Factotum begins with Henry working in a factory, chopping large blocks of ice. Of course, he doesn’t want ice, but rather the stuff that’s poured over it. Soon Henry is sitting in a bar, enjoying an after-work cocktail a few hours before after-work technically begins. This sort of circumstance is where he’s frequently found, with dependable results: The boss walks in and fires him. Subsequently, Henry finds work with a pickle factory, a taxi company, a bicycle warehouse, a newspaper—not as a writer—and more. Sometimes, but not always, Henry holds the job for more than a day. Keeping a place to live is equally problematic, so when his manuscripts are returned by prospective publishers, he’s not always there to receive them.
Understandably, Henry spends a lot of time alone. He forms brief alliances with a racetrack sharpie (Fisher Stevens) and a battered saloon regular (Marisa Tomei) with a wealthy, if unreliable, patron; he also pays a visit to his mother and father, who could hardly be less sympathetic—not that you can blame them. (“I need a piece of ass” is not the best icebreaker when chatting up long-estranged parents.) Yet Henry does have a soulmate: heavy drinker, enthusiastic sex partner, and sometime hotel chambermaid Jan (Lili Taylor). He returns to her with the same mixture of desperation, acceptance, and delight with which he takes another drink, if not as often.
Henry and Jan’s relationship is far from untroubled, and she can be as feral as he is. At the racetrack, she’s offended when he won’t physically eject a guy from the seats they claimed, so she flirts with the interloper until Henry gets mad enough to slug him. Yet there are tender moments between them, such as the day she dresses up to accompany her unlikely beau to get a severance check from another one-day employer. When the check’s not ready, Jan kicks off her heels in disgust, and Henry puts his shoes on her feet.
Taylor is impeccable as Jan, and the supporting cast is no less impressive. Yet Dillon is the film’s central marvel. He not only embodies Henry, endowing the crusty alcoholic with a full measure of awkward humanity, in brief voiceovers, he also reads Bukowski’s prose convincingly, delivering even the most overripe skid-row romanticism without a hint of embarrassment, hyperbole, or mockery. The script, fashioned by Hamer and co-producer and co-writer Jim Stark from Factotum and some related Bukowski stories, includes a few Henry Miller–like howlers, yet Dillon never loses it.
There are two difficulties with Factotum, one of them central. The lesser one is that the film was shot far from Los Angeles, which was Bukowski’s home since his parents emigrated from Germany when he was 3. Filmed in the least picturesque districts of Minneapolis, and rendered by cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund in the muted hues of a northern clime, the movie feels just a bit off, like a Faulkner novel transplanted to Oslo. The bigger issue is Bukowski himself: He’s a one-note writer, and those unsympathetic to his whiskey-stained worldview will not be converted by this film, as good as it is. For those who’ve never encountered Bukowski on-screen, Factotum is the one to see. But for Bukowski skeptics who’ve already endured a previous adaptation—well, they should probably adjourn directly to the bar.CP