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MOVIE REVIEW

A too-tidy look at a glorious mess

If you took Jack Kerouac, shook everything out of him except Zen and booze, then filled him with proud self-loathing, you might end up with someone like Charles Bukowski. Like the Beats he came after, Bukowski wrote ecstatically and without filters; unlike them, he had no ideals whatsoever. There was his art and there was the gutter, and if you wanted to glorify the latter, that was your own damned business.

Movies partly exist to glamorize the low life, though, which means indie filmmakers have occasionally sniffed around the tottering pile of prose and poetry Bukowski churned out before his 1994 death. ``Barfly," from 1987, is the best- known movie adaptation and the same year's ``Love Is a Dog From Hell" probably the best; the 2003 documentary ``Bukowski: Born Into This" offers the clearest portrait of the artist, his discontents, and his controversial but very real gifts.

Next to all those films, ``Factotum" looks steam-cleaned, and that can't be right. The director is Bent Hamer , who made the loopy, bone-dry comedy ``Kitchen Stories" (2003), and if there's a lesson here, it's never send a Norwegian to do the work of a bum. Adapting Bukowski's 1975 novel -- a semi-autobiographical memoir of the misadventures of a writer/drunkard named Henry Chinaski -- Hamer has created a tidy film about a fabulously messy man.

Emblematic of both the movie's strengths and flaws is Matt Dillon's Chinaski, a smart and noble job of acting in a part for which the star is physically all wrong. It's not just that Dillon looks too good to play the famously unhandsome Bukowski; with a beer gut and facial splotches, the actor manages a decent approximation of human wreckage. Rather, it's in his eyes; no matter how degraded the character gets -- and Bukowski grabbed at degradation as if it were the gold ring -- you still glimpse the romance of hope in them. To read the work itself is to know existence scoured clean of hope.

Instead, what Hamer and Dillon get across is the comedy of the loser's life, and that's true to Bukowski as well. ``Factotum" (the title, we're told, means a man of many occupations and master of none) opens with Henry being fired from his job driving an ice truck after he stops in a bar long enough for the product to melt. He subsequently finds work driving a taxi, cleaning floors, repairing auto brakes, sorting bicycle parts, but none of the jobs mean more than a paycheck to drink up and a way to laugh at the straights. There's the writing, of course -- compulsive and unceasing -- but when Henry sends his scabrous manuscripts off to The New Yorker, it's mostly as a black joke.

He only feels at home in the invisible stratum of Los Angeles: the bars, the racetracks, shacked up in a crummy apartment with Jan (the glorious Lili Taylor ), a floozy who welcomes sex ``as if it was a knife that was killing her."

``Factotum" gets a lot of absurdist mileage out of the hero's predicaments -- there's a memorable run-in with a wealthy sot played by Marisa Tomei , who introduces Henry to her lover, an aging Frenchman (Didier Flamand ) with a ramshackle yacht -- and Dillon's narration is appropriately beaten down. Whenever he starts to sound a little too film noir, along comes a line like ``Crabs, baby -- you gave me the crabs," and all's right with the world.

``Factotum" is gorgeously shot by John Christian Rosenlund and, again, that feels like a misstep. Squalor, and the blunt poetry that can rise from squalor, are observed rather than lived in this movie, and the few moments that do pierce your soul -- that prune away sentiment and cut straight to the heart of things -- are mostly Bukowski's original words.

From disgusted aphorisms (``People don't drive; they steer") to hard statements of purpose (``Only the writer is the judge of writing") to the long, intensely moving manifesto that ends the movie, these passages testify to why Bukowski is read more now than ever. ``If you're going to try, go all the way," Henry says, and you can almost hear Bukowski's unkempt growl. ``There is no other feeling like that. . . . You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is." ``Factotum" throws just enough solid punches to make you want to witness the main match.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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