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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.
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 head of a public records office advertises for a new employee. Only one person responds--Bartleby, a former postal worker who at first files like a demon then lapses into apathy. Bartleby stands all day looking at an air vent in the ceiling, responding to every request from his boss and coworkers with, "I would prefer not to." Eventually the boss retaliates with passive-aggressive acts aimed at getting rid of the man. Till the very end, however, Bartleby remains an enigma, a human cipher who refuses to give up his secrets.
Hardly an engaging story premise? That's what I thought when I trudged through Herman Melville's mid-nineteenth century story "Bartleby the Scrivener" in college lit class. Sure, the story has an important theme and some interesting symbolism, but it's also dull, dull, dull. However, director Jonathan Parker has taken the best sort of revenge on this canonical work of American literature; he's turned it into a zany, low-budget, laugh fest--getting across many of the essential ideas while also entertaining his audience. Parker has approached the sort of exaggerated, stale, depressing office atmosphere seen at the beginning of "Joe Versus the Volcano" and turned it inside out, covering it with a colorful, kitschy facade to inflate the absurdity of modern information mills.
Essential to the success of the film is the fine ensemble cast. Crispin Glover deserves more lead roles, and though with Bartleby he does spend most of his time immobile and silent, perhaps no other actor can accomplish more with simple posture, well-manipulated expressions, and quirky movement. Glenne Headly is a scream in her exaggerated seduction attempts aimed at Seymour Cassel. Joe Piscopo is also in fine form as the office macho man, though he has aged dramatically since we saw him last in, what--"Wise Guys"? Maury Chaykin gives the overweight and nerve-racked Ernie a comic flair, playing with his desktop windup toys only to flinch every time they jump, and pulling off an impressive physical comedy scene involving a sandwich, a photocopier, and a watercooler. Finally, David Paymer as "The Boss" provides a solid focus for the film with his adaptive performance of a complex character.
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