Although closer in tone to “Office Space” than Herman Melville, Jonathan Parker’s absurdist update of “Bartleby” is surprisingly faithful to the spirit, if not the letter, of the “Moby-Dick” author’s 1853 novella about an under-achieving Wall Street copy clerk. Probably too uneven and idiosyncratic to generate either mainstream commercial success or across-the-board critical raves, pic could nonetheless click as a cult item with smart marketing and careful fest-circuit launching.
With invaluable assistance from costumer Morganne Newson and production designer Rasario Provenza, director and co-writer Parker creates a vaguely retro environment where clothing and “Brady Bunch”-style color schemes suggest the 1970s, but various props and topical allusions indicate a contemporary setting. This deliberate fuzziness of milieu cannily underscores the timelessness of pic’s observations about the drudgery of dead-end jobs, the politics of interoffice relationships — and, more important, the degrees of panic, rage and stunned incredulity that result when long-standing routines are upset.
Parker and co-scripter Catherine Di Napoli introduce a well-cast David Paymer as The Boss, the newly appointed city records manager for an unidentified metropolis. (Pic was shot in Marin County and San Francisco.)
Mindful of the increased workload for his small records-management firm, The Boss decides to increase his three-person staff by one. He eagerly considers placing an ad for a dynamic “risk-taker.” But Vivian (Glenne Headly), his sexy but commonsense secretary, takes a more realistic approach to writing the Help Wanted copy. The ad for a deadly dull and low-paying menial position attracts only one candidate: Bartleby (Crispin Glover), a soft-spoken, conservatively dressed and almost translucently pale young man with a Brian Jones coiffure and a borderline somnambulistic manner.At first, Bartleby is an exceptionally efficient, albeit unusually standoffish, employee. Gradually, however, his eccentricity escalates into a spooky weirdness. He starts to refuse simple directives by The Boss with a deferential “I would prefer not to.”
The Boss is more perplexed than enraged by Bartleby’s strange behavior. But Bartleby’s two fellow clerks — Rocky (Joe Piscopo), a sharp-dressed ladies’ man with a truculent streak, and Ernie (Maury Chaykin), a whiny neurotic who served in Vietnam — are seriously peeved that their co-worker isn’t carrying his fair share of the load. And it doesn’t help much when The Boss inadvertently discovers that Bartleby is literally making his home in the office after hours.
Eventually, Bartleby stops producing altogether, calmly announcing, “I’ve given up working.” So The Boss fires him. Trouble is, Bartleby refuses to vacate the premises.Paymer treads a fine line between amusing buffoonery and dead-serious befuddlement, between slow-simmering comic rage and profoundly fearful consternation, carrying off the juggling act with seemingly effortless ease.As Bartleby, Glover underplays effectively, with a minimum of ostentatious quirkiness. The clerk remains more of a literary conceit than a flesh-and-blood character, but, except for an ill-conceived fantasy sequence in which Bartleby delivers a Hitlerian rant, Glover is everything the pic needs, and likely very close to what Melville had in mind.
Supporting players are a mixed bag. Chaykin and Piscopo are well cast, with the latter unexpectedly spot-on. (Credit the filmmakers for slyly enabling Piscopo’s Rocky to evince pugnacity similar to Turkey, the equivalent character in Melville’s original.) And while Seymour Cassel has little to do as a politico who disapprovingly observes Bartleby’s behavior, he gives a thoroughly professional perf.
But Headly is too obvious by half in her cartoonish vamping as Vivian, while Dick Martin (as the city mayor) and Carrie Snodgress (as a book publisher) are standouts for all the wrong reasons. It’s worth noting that none of these characters is based on figures in Melville’s story, and that Snodgress’ cameo is part of an unnecessary coda that unwisely tries to take the original narrative one step beyond its climactic tragedy.
But this “Bartleby” is a much more successful translation than the most famous previous film version, writer-director Anthony Friedman’s similarly contemporized 1970 Brit production starring John McEnery as Bartleby and Paul Scofield as his employer.Parker’s version has its flaws — the eclectic musical score, ranging from the theremin sounds of a ’50s sci-fi B-movie to the tinkling piano of silent movie accompaniment, is much too intrusive — but manages to incorporate most of the novella’s themes, and even a respectable amount of Melville’s dialogue. Better still, like Melville, Parker refuses to “explain” the title character, which may annoy some ticketbuyers but will delight most purists.