Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A labor of love from French director Barbet Schroeder by way of Cannon, Barfly will disgust
the straights while intriguing fans of the late gutter poet Charles Bukowski. A slightly rosy
autobiographical portrait, this film's Henry Chinaski is fun to watch, even if you're glad you
don't have to smell him or his skid row millieu. It's the old story of the artist who refuses to
be 'corrupted' by the straight life, and it's amusing. But anyone with any
contact to an alcoholic in their present or past, won't be amused.
Three besotted, bruised days in the life of Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke), a skid
row barfly who scribbles great poetic musings in the dead of night, or whenever the liquor inspires
him. He has a running feud with bruiser bartender Eddie (Frank Stallone), while a sympathetic
barkeep Jim (J.C. Quinn) tends to sympathize. This week, literary genius Henry has female trouble:
he starts off a promising relationship with fellow barfly Wanda Wilcox (Faye Dunaway), while avoiding
the advances of trendy Westside arts magazine publisher Tully Sorenson (Alice Krige). Can Tully's
$500 short story sale inspire Henry to straighten out? Or will he maintain life as an unending bender
with the sultry, jealous Wanda?
Charles Bukowski's self-portrait lends Henry Chinaski an element of glamour. It's fun to spend a
couple of hours with this spittoon philosopher, even if his brilliant insights boil down to familiar
nihilism and defeatist disenchantment. Henry would rather not engage with anything, to the extent
of answering the simple question, 'Who are you?' with 'I don't know.' Yet he's surprisingly functional
for someone who should be incoherent most of the time, knowing
when to avoid the cops and how to cozy up to the equally sodden Wanda.
Mickey Rourke (who later took to mimicking Henry Chinaski's hygiene for a spell, so I'm told) plays the
poet as a walking wreck. The beatings he takes from Eddie (perfectly cast with Sylvester Stallone's
talentless brother) cover him with scars, bandaids, and knuckles that look like gangrene is setting in.
His lip is permanently split. Wanda's purse must have some sharp edges, because after she beats him
over the head with it, he's one mess of blood and booze-soaked pain. Normally, he shambles around
like a Morlock with a painful carrot stuck up his rear end; we can't tell if he's limping from discomfort,
or just trying to navigate through the alcoholic haze.
The character is so out there, that we cruise through 40 minutes just watching Henry unwind in different
situations. He doesn't talk, instead nasally drawling out everything he says, which on the surface is very
amusing, like a character from the Popeye cartoon. The main plot is a slight dalliance with the
fashion-plate Alice Krige, who's attracted to
him for his literary genius. She must also have a strong stomach, for all we can think of when he
flops on her couch or into her bed, is that both pieces of furniture will have to be burned, or at least
deloused. Krige not only is smitten by this walking cockroach (a charming one, granted) that she comes
back to find him at the end, only to get the works from Wanda in a so-so catfight. As this is
Bukowski writing about Bukowski, we can chalk up Henry Chinaski's animal magnetism for both
dames to author's ego.
As a portrait of life on the street, Barfly is accurate, but there's a
glamour factor that some people will say is a refusal to play the social consiousness game, and
others will feel is just plain untrue. I joke about how rummies smell (it ain't just liquor, folks)
but the fact is that the drinking is a sickness, and the people are often seriously ill with other
problems as well. Real skid row denizens are variously brutal, criminal, predatory, victimized, or
deranged, but they're far more pathetic and far less functional than the amazing Henry, who wakes
from killer hangovers to write out killer verse like Dr. Zhivago. Hipsters can groove on the authentic
barfly mystique, with the gross humor of the hookers, and the sordid squalor chic. Barfly is
Schroeder, a multi-faceted director also at home with landmark docus like Koko: The Talking
Gorilla, handles his cast well. Faye Dunaway still has a face and figure left after what's
supposed to be abuse similar to Henry's, but she acts the dissolution well, and puts on a good
frump act. We all know that the best Henry could score would really be something like the long-gone
Lilly at the end of the bar, the woman with a grim hatred for everything. Alice Krige does well
considering her character is so completely out of place in this grimy world. And the other bar
denizens can accurately convey the seediness because quite a few of them were recruited right from
Warner's DVD of Barfly looks great, with the saturated colors of Robby Müller's
photography nicely transferred. The sound is also adequately represented; the soundtrack itself is
papered wall to wall with Henry's classical radio selections alternating with drinking bar music
chosen by Schroeder's assistant director and right hand man, Jack Baran.
For extras, there's a
very smooth trailer that conveys the gist of the show in record time, a good example of the Cannon
advertising department that bred so many good trailer cutters. Schroeder's commentary sticks with
the film onscreen and the actors, and tends too frequently to point out the obvious, but it gives
us his take on Bukowski and the project. A featurette from 1987 that looks unfinished, Drink,/
Gamble and / Write: The Making of Barfly gives us the same subject matter from Bukowski's POV
in a series of interview snippets wrapped around behind the scenes footage.
Even more access to
Bukowski can be found in a series of excerpts from Schroeder's video interview essay with the writer
called The Bukowski Tapes. Bukowski is rational, reasonable, looks like he was drawn by Robert Crumb,
and is clearly a man who did what he had to do in life, and just happened to be inspired to write
it all down. He doesn't advocate that anybody else follow his example, but he's proud of his
example just the same.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 9, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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