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.