What Is It? is a bewildering, unnerving, surreal, blackly comic film from the visionary mind of Crispin Glover that tells the inner and outer struggles of a young man facing villains and demons on multiple planes.
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At a public records office, a seemingly normal boss has hired a new employee named Bartleby. Bartleby however, is eccentric and with each passing day, he begins to refuse his boss' orders which only gets worse. Eventually, the boss finds himself clueless as to what to do about Bartleby as he discovers even stranger things about him. Written by
The film touches on some parts of the original story very aptly. I thought the Chaykin-Piscopo match was very close indeed to what Melville intended. As to Crispin Glover, no other movie actor of his stature is creepy enough and palpably slow-witted enough to fit the role -- not even the younger editions of a Brando or Hopper or Walken, who would overact monstrously in one form or another.
Most viewers seem to surrender to the misconception that the story is all about Bartleby. In fact, the narrator undergoes the most profound change within its context. And in that sense this film version fails because the Paymer character is made out to be a complete sap, rather than the seriously introspective and well-educated man of the original.
No one in 1853 knew anything of co-dependency in relation to addictions and other mental disorders, but Melville was prescient in that regard. The apparent despondency of Bartleby (characterized in the original as late of the Dead Letter Office) has no bounds, but it is in his employer's character we are led to see that this relatively new concept involving an excess of identification with the subject person can result in similar debilitation on the part of the caregiver.
It falls as well into the category of feature-length films based on short stories destroyed by too much padding and extraneous activity we used to call "stage business." It should be as spare as the slowly emptying mind of Bartleby himself.
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