He seemed like such a nice, harmless employee, until he
changed. It’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it? Bartleby
is as radical today as when Melville wrote his story
in the mid-19th century. There is still no other literary
character precisely like him. But be forewarned. Exposure
to his unique and unforgettable story can turn anyone’s brain
into Bartleby’s haunted house. He will never leave you in
peace—just try to get rid of him.
Bartleby is an ideal, if introverted, office
drone. But one day, for no apparent reason, he startles his
boss when he spontaneously declares that he “would prefer
not to” perform a requested task. One small act of non-compliance
in a nondescript office escalates into an extensive crisis.
At first, Bartleby’s employer assumes the incident is a freakish
incident. Increasingly, however, Bartleby “prefers not to”
perform other duties, until his job vanishes altogether, swallowed
whole by his stubborn “preference” and he simply stops working
at all. “Can you do anything to justify your existence
in this office?” demands his frustrated boss, driven beyond
his limits. Apparently beyond his need to justify any aspect
of his existence, Bartleby has unconsciously managed to challenge
and defeat every social skill his boss possessed.
When he is inevitably fired, Bartleby gently, but obstinately,
refuses to leave the premises. In fact, his employer discovers
Bartleby has been secretly living in the office, his bedroll
stashed in a filing cabinet. Unable to take anymore, the employer
relocates his entire office, only to find that Bartleby is
someone from whom there is really no escape.
On the one hand, identifying with Bartleby is difficult.
He inexplicably and destructively leaves behind every aspect
of normal life—home, job, social exchange. But then again,
who hasn’t had the urge to repeat his infamous mantra in response
to burgeoning bills, bloodless bosses, the bullshit of daily
Inevitably one joins the legions of the obsessed, attempting
to twist various aspects of Bartleby’s character into place.
Who is Bartleby and what does he want from us? Everybody has
a theory. Bartleby is the folly of free will, the definitive
practitioner of passive resistance, a Zen koan, the ghost
to end all ghosts, the sadness of life itself. How to explain
away a character who challenges us to face the assumptions
we each nurse to avoid true freedom and what it means?
How do you adapt a story about a man who won’t adapt, for
a contemporary audience? Because of its continued relevance,
the story adapts smoothly to our own time.
One of the film’s strengths is how it reinvents some of story’s
original details. In Melville’s version, Bartleby, spare of
appetite, eats nothing but ginger nuts. In the film, his desk
overflows with tiny packets of toxic cheese and crackers purchased
from an anonymous vending machine. The original tale takes
place on Wall Steet. The film, on the other hand, goes 21st-century
suburban. Monolithic office buildings ominously perch, like
miniature versions of Dracula’s castle, on forlorn mounds
overlooking the freeway. Bartleby’s frustrated boss desperately
offers him some well-meaning, if condescending job alternatives—pest
control technician, telemarketer, directory assistance operator.
“If you had to,” he asks, “What career would you choose?”
“I don’t have to,” is Bartleby’s jaw-dropping reply. You’d
think he’d decided he wanted to devote his life to writing
film reviews. This film all too successfully relocates its
hero to contemporary times.
Glover, who plays the title role, has always seemed
less like an actor than a one-man freak show for hire, a perpetrator
of oddball chic. He adds a hip, but unthreatening, touch of
the offbeat. Because he appears in mercifully brief cameos,
audiences can bear witness to weirdness without becoming truly
disturbed. He’s campy, he’s culty, he domesticates the strange.
Perhaps this explains Bartleby’s unfortunate tendency
to emphasize its title character as a typical Glover freak
with gratuitous wacky theremin music whenever he appears.
Despite my reservations, however, Glover makes a persuasive,
often touchingly fragile. In fact, his performance is the
most consistently sastisfying in the film.
If Glover gives the most persuasive performance in a film,
his co-stars should be afraid, very afraid. Talented veteran
actors appear in several key roles such as Bartleby’s officemates
Vivian (Headley) and Ernie (Chaykin) and his
nameless boss (Paymer). The movie’s insistence on reducing
its very complex source material to a predictable black comedy
about the emptiness of office life turns Headley and Chaykin
into unctuous stereotypes, the office sexpot and the office
crazy. Even mixed bags like Office Space or Clockwatchers
did vastly better than Bartleby at presenting the frustrations
of the workplace. Here actors smirk and raise their eyebrows
in a wink-and-nudge approximation of self-satisfied indie
film satire, much to their detriment.
Only Paymer and Glover, who get meaty emotional scenes lifted
straight from Melville’s story, manage to escape this fate.
There is a fleeting moment when the boss sadly discovers Bartleby
as he attempts to hide his bedroll. The heartfelt look they
exchange, filled with bewilderment, fear, and an odd empathy,
says much more than endless minutes spent on tired and tacky
office satire. Paymer’s is the only performance that changes
over time, as his character goes from mannered conformist
to heartbroken rebel. The scenes between Paymer and Glover
and the film’s subtler, genuinely funny touches suggest that
the filmmakers simply needed more time to let the film grow
I would prefer to give this film a better, more generous
review. It was shot on a shoestring budget in a deserted video
store in an abandoned strip mall (a location that perfectly
corresponds to its melancholy hero) by a first-time director.
However, I would prefer not to be exposed to a series
of independent film clichés that don’t encourage the audience
to think beyond what we already know. Bartleby turns
its namesake into an easily digested symbol of the alienated
modern worker. It simplistically “solves” the riddle of Bartleby’s
identity rather than letting us explore its extensive ambiguities
on our own. This bow to conventions deprives Bartleby of his
mystery and deprives the audience of acknowledging our own
discomfort about a character that we cannot, and should not,
place so easily.