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
Herman Melville's `Bartleby the Scrivener' has always been one of my all-time favorite short stories, a masterpiece of tone that features one of the most enigmatic characters in literary history. With devastating wit and understated irony along with a keen appreciation for the absurdist and the surreal - Melville tells the tale of a well meaning though banally efficient pragmatist who is forced to reconsider his values when he runs up against a certified (and perhaps certifiably insane) nonconformist. After he hires Bartleby to be a clerk in his office, the (unnamed) employer quickly discovers that the taciturn, quirky young man has no intention of doing any work - and, even more strangely, that he feels no compulsion to explain his state of self-imposed inertia. What makes Bartleby fascinating is that he is a nonconformist simply by nature and not because he has any real bone to pick with society or the people around him. This lack of explanation frustrates the boss, of course, and some readers as well. But it is Bartleby's defining phrase, `I would prefer not to' - delivered like a refrain throughout the course of the story - that speaks for those in society who question the value and purpose of the myriad irrelevant tasks we are compelled to perform as we make our way through life.
Melville conceived his story as a stinging indictment aimed against the dehumanizing effect of the business world's bureaucratic structure. How appropriate, then, that the makers of this current film version (now called simply `Bartleby') have chosen to set the tale in the present day, when that guiding philosophy has become, if anything, even more pronounced. David Paymer is splendid as the public records office manager who finds himself embroiled in an epic battle of wills against a force he cannot understand yet, in some bizarre fashion, can also not help identifying with and admiring. Crispin Glover is the pasty-faced Bartleby who seems to slip further and further into a state of catatonic madness as the story progresses. In their screenplay, Jonathan Parker (who also directed the film) and Catherine Di Napoli have retained the flavor of the original, combining hilarious and poignant moments in roughly equal measure. For even while we are laughing at the absurdity of both Bartleby and the other eccentric staff members in the office, we are also being made aware as the boss is of just how unique and admirable a creature Bartleby truly is.
With its deliberate pacing, its starkly antiseptic, parti-colored sets and its eerily moody musical score (some of it reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's work for `The Day the Earth Stood Still'), the film takes us to a highly stylized world where the events we see depicted come to make total sense. Only the most blatant realist will be inspired to question the wisdom of the main character's actions concerning Bartleby. All the rest of us will see the boss for the open-minded humanitarian Melville intended him to be.
Parker has pulled together an interestingly offbeat group of actors to serve as his supporting cast, including Dick Martin, Joe Piscopo and Carrie Snodgrass. Glenne Headly is particularly wonderful as a flirtatious office worker who spends most of her time making suggestive comments, gestures and even foodstuffs to lure men her way.
It's the extraordinarily controlled and brilliantly delivered deadpan humor that makes `Bartleby' an adaptation worthy of its source. This movie proves that Melville's nonpareil creation will forever be a timeless tale.
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