Bartleby

2001, PG-13, 82 min. Directed by Jonathan Parker. Starring Crispin Glover, David Paymer, Glenne Headley, Maury Chaykin, Joe Piscopo, Carrie Snodgress, Seymour Cassel.

REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., June 14, 2002

When a city records manager (Paymer) in search of a new clerk places a frank classified ad ("No benefits. Dull job. Vibrating workplace."), the perfect candidate appears: Bartleby (Glover), a wan, stooped, glassy-eyed milquetoast who remains contentedly parked at his desk and apparently subsists on Handi-Snacks alone. In adapting Herman Melville's 1853 short story "Bartleby the Scrivener," debuting writer-director Parker (with co-scripter Catherine di Napoli) wisely moves the action from Wall Street to a behemoth office building on a precipice surrounded by a tangle of freeways (making it "completely inaccessible to pedestrians"). His clerks are an exaggerated Who's Who of contemporary cube drones --a sweaty, blustery Big Guy devoid of social skills (Chaykin), a sleazeball (Piscopo, naturally), and a sexpot office manager (Headley). All are confounded when Bartleby "prefers not to" work, standing agape under a dusty vent, motionless, instead. Though it's been updated to include awkward references to e-mail and body glitter, the script more or less retains the deliciously prickly, elocutionary voice of Melville's story. Headley, in particular, speaks in alliterative dialogue that nicely befits her musical, mellifluous delivery. Moreover, this could be the role Glover was born to play; his nebbishy, vaguely creepy mien gives Bartleby's inertia a sinister edge without making him unsympathetic or menacing. (His sorry plight, after all, inspires the story's final desperate words: "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!") The film's technique, on the other hand, is too aggressively bizarre, too overstated at times. The production design is a treat for the eyes, creating a hyper-artificial workplace milieu of monochrome furniture and recycled air. One wall of the office is a hilariously cheesy mural depicting a forest scene, replete with ten-point buck, though Paymer's window opens up to a dumpster, not the great outdoors. It's commendable, clever work, enjoyable in its own right and probably well-suited to the story. Regrettably, however, Parker throws in a couple of painful, self-consciously arty dream sequences, with boogie fog and a reclining nude, in order to convey Paymer's mounting frustration with his recalcitrant employee. (Imagine the ponderous dream sequences from the film-within-a-film in Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion, but without the dwarf, for which we can be thankful.) Modern life is inherently surreal and alienating, particularly in the workplace, and in these moments, Parker simply overreaches. The staging also tends to be clunky and inelegant, probably owing to Parker's freshman status at the helm. These flaws, sadly, undermine what might otherwise be a refreshingly offbeat little movie, obviously lacking in Melville's gravitas, but inventive enough. Instead, it comes across as stiff and uneven.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Jonathan Parker Films
(Untitled)
High art is both lampooned and championed in this knowing satire that stars the ever-eccentric Adam Goldberg.

Marjorie Baumgarten, Nov. 6, 2009

More by Marrit Ingman
Wonder Stories
Wonder Stories
Books

July 25, 2008

King Corn
The film’s light hand, appealing style, and simple exposition make it an eminently watchable inquiry into the politics of food, public health, and the reasons why corn has become an ingredient in virtually everything we eat.

Nov. 9, 2007

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Bartleby, Jonathan Parker, Crispin Glover, David Paymer, Glenne Headley, Maury Chaykin, Joe Piscopo, Carrie Snodgress, Seymour Cassel

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle