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Bartleby (PG-13)
Parker Film Company, distributed through Outrider Films
Official Site
Director: Jonathan Parker
Producers: Jonathan Parker and Catherine DiNapoli
Written by: Jonathan Parker and Catherine DiNapoli; from the story by Herman Melville
Cast: Crispin Glover, David Paymer, Glenne Headly, Maury Chaykin, Joe Piscopo, Carrie Snodgrass

Rating: out of 5

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 life?

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 into itself.

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.

Ellen Whittier


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