starring Crispin Glover, David Paymer, Glenne Headly, Maury Chaykin
screenplay by Jonathan Parker and Catherine DiNapoli, based on the novella Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville
directed by Jonathan Parker
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Bartleby (Crispin Glover) is a former employee of the dead-letter office hired on by The Boss (David Paymer) to perform menial tasks in a nondescript public-works office. Joining a small crew of underpaid, rather dull people (mad Ernie (Maury Chaykin), belligerent Rocky (Matt Groening-sketched Joe Piscopo), and sexpot Vivian (Glenne Headly)), pallid and peculiar Bartleby makes waves when he begins to respond to any request outside the ordinary with a slightly apologetic, "I would prefer not to."
As afflicts many of the glut of updated adaptations flooding the cinema in the last several years, Jonathan Parker's Bartleby, a modernization of Herman Melville's novella Bartleby the Scrivener, first attempts to expand its source by marrying new elements and environments to it and continues by cribbing themes from other works by the same or analogous authors before finally taking swipes at its own source, in a try for that winking post-modern flippancy. The film borrows Billy Budd's death as ironic saviour (the scrivener perishes leaning against the middle pillar of three), losing in the process the poignancy of Melville's "hunger artist" fate, and it adds insult to ignorance by mocking Melville's unparalleled gift for language in granting his best lines to a manufactured man-eater portrayed by an overreaching Headly.
Parker's adaptation--despite its attempts to spice things up with a ribald riposte between Headly and Seymour Cassel (as some government bigwig) and a badly-played tryst between Paymer and a rock groupie--reveals itself as a work drear and misread. Its attempts at mordant humour and deadpan farce misfire with a stultifying regularity ("They have a name for people like that: oxymorons!"), blunted by a graceless screenplay and no doubt the narcoleptic force of decades of Kafka and Orwell seeping into the collective unconscious. The game performances of a quirky cast are outmatched by the utter lack of invention in their dialogue (despite a few stretches taken directly from Melville) and by Parker's staid direction, which intrudes and distracts through its very studied lack of distinction.
Bartleby honours Melville to the extent that it seeks to comment on the soul-sucking meaninglessness of office jobs, presenting a character who, with nary a trace of rebellion, blandly refuses to do his job. Played by Glover, however, it isn't passive resistance so much as a pathological apathy, so that when a blank wall in the story transforms into an office vent, or when Billy Budd, Sailor is referenced in the sound of the sea (and, as mentioned above, in the death of Bartleby), what emerges isn't so much a commentary on the essential meaninglessness of existence as a failed attempt to draw Kafka into religious parable. For all its fixation on the rituals of ennui, however, this Bartleby is no "Cats in the Temple," needing desperately to be grounded either in a dedicated updating fully incorporating a postmodern absurdism--or to find its faith in Melville's acerbic allegory. By attempting to navigate a middle ground (one pleasant to scholars and hipsters in equal measure), Bartleby manages only a dank listlessness that vexes the muse while boring the peanut gallery. Originally published: June 14, 2002.