The first four words of this film say it all, one of the most besotted, piss-tank movies of all time (Barfly is perhaps only matched by Withnail and I when it comes to drunken debauchery).
Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke) is the regal title drunk, a wastrel and would-be novelist who needs “fuel” to take out nemesis Eddie the Bartender (terrifically portrayed with thug-menace by Frank Stallone). He finds it in the form of a sandwich, pilfered straight from the grubby hands of a fatso at the end of the bar, and proceeds to lay out Eddie with a savage beating.
When he’s sent packing, ending up in another down-and-out saloon, he makes the acquaintance of Wanda, a gone-to-seed goddess with legs from here til that half-drunk bottle of Knob Creek Bourbon. That’s Faye Dunaway, whose character matches Henry’s step for sloppy, staggering step. She’s a kept woman and two of them run up a big bar and liquor tab on her lover’s credit, Wilbur.
One of the unlikeliest of Cannon Productions, a company not exactly known for putting out films depicting gritty realism, Barfly is a semi-autobiographical account of the life lived by lout, Charles Bukowski, the infamous German-American novelist and piss-tank poet of Skid Row. (to the extent it succeeds, is best answered by the pretty good document about Buk’s life, Born into This).
What’s amusing in this day and age of leaner, scaled back publishing world, is the lengths to which assignment editors in Barfly go to track down talent, especially to Henry’s neck of the woods, in a one-room flop-house with stained walls and ceilings.
While there’s not much in the way of a narrative, Barfly gets grit points. The barflies all look like the very real typical lowlife/degenerates you’d see in any big city (though now, with the kinds of saloons depicted in Los Angeles either shuttered or gentrified, the best place to see them is in burger joints and diners that peddle $3 beers).
Rourke and Dunaway make an amazing couple, and Grant and Hepburn, but they bring a considerable charm and authenticity to their respective roles.
**** (out of 5)
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