Charles Bukowski's immaculately constructed myth has long overshadowed his creative output. He has come to epitomize the adolescent archetype of the writer as drunk, tormented antihero, a two-fisted brawler composing transcendent poetry on bar napkins, perpetually reaching for the stars before stumbling into the gutter. Those "I'd Rather Be Reading Bukowski" bumper stickers alone have done more to prevent intelligent people from exploring the writer's work than anything else.
The Bukowski legend gets a faithful, reverent retelling in Bukowski: Born Into This, a fan's-eye view of Bukowski as the patron saint of barroom bards. Fully buying into the gutter romanticism that fuels Bukowski's legend, the film documents his miserable childhood, unhappy stint as a postal worker, dysfunctional relationships, and late-in-life fame. For all his drinking and self-destruction, Bukowski was a remarkably hardworking and resilient writer: He cranked out poems at an astonishing pace, endured rejection for much of his adult life, and appeared in countless tiny publications before breaking through.
Bukowski spent decades perfecting his charming-raconteur shtick before there was any mass audience for it, and Born Into This' best moments come from the clips of Bukowski himself. With his William S. Burroughs-like drone, self-deprecating wit, and boxer's mug, Bukowski cuts a striking, magnetic figure. A riveting combination of drunken swagger and childlike vulnerability, he proves equally adept at playing to the needs of an adoring crowd and at speaking with a reporter who accuses him of sexism. Born Into This goes to great lengths to show the man-child behind the barfly, but in its rush to deify its subject, it lacks critical voices and context. It's possible that no writer is as closely linked to alcohol as Bukowski, but the film essentially treats his alcoholism as a lovable quirk. Director John Dullaghan provides no real sense of the emotional and physical toll drinking must have taken on Bukowski's body and mind, just as he fails to give any concrete sense of what the critical establishment thought of Bukowski, or how he fit into the historical continuum of American writers. As a diverting feature-length love letter, Born Into This should thrill fans, but it has an unfortunate knack for glorifying Bukowski the icon at the expense of Bukowski the man.