Bartleby Movie Review

Perhaps I'm too much of a literalist to stomach a thickly ironic, extremely low-budget adaptation of Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" set in an eerily sterile modern office. Or perhaps writer-director Jonathan Parker's update of the conceptual tale about a boss driven crazy by an uncooperative employee really is as under-rehearsed and lifeless as it seems to me.

At the center of "Bartleby" is the title character, a meek, withdrawn oddball played by Crispin Glover (the Thin Man in "Charlie's Angels" and George McFly in "Back to the Future") with his quiet, uneasy, string-bean quirkiness turned up full blast. He comes to work as a paper-pusher in a government records office for a fidgety boss (David Paymer) whose subservient existence of sedated equilibrium is thrown for a loop when Bartleby simply stops working one day, answering every order and request with "I would prefer not to."

Before long he's living in the office and spending the better part of each day staring at an air conditioning duct while Paymer goes nuts trying to reason with him.

I understand the film is supposed to be metaphorical, surreal and absurdist. The office building is one of dozens perched atop small hills that are surrounded by freeways. The office itself is painted awkward colors, flocked with forest-scene wallpaper, and has a view of the building's dumpsters. And just to drive the point home, the soundtrack features the frequent bleating of a Theremin (that woo-eee-ooh instrument from old sci-fi movies and the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations").

But because the acting is so stilted and the movie's shoestring budget leaves it with community theater production values, the characters and the situations never seem viable enough to surrender to the movie's peculiar milieu. As a result, one is left wanting to slap Paymer and ask, why don't you just fire Bartleby?

When the boss finally does come to that conclusion, the story becomes even more nonsensical. "When you're done cleaning out your desk," Paymer instructs as he leaves Bartleby alone in the office at the end of his last day, "please lock the door on your way out and slip the key under the door." That's not surreal. That's just stupid.

And of course, guess who's still in the office, staring at the A/C vent come Monday morning.

What writer-director Parker seems to be going for is a cross between Melville's cog-in-the-wheel fulfillment allegory and something akin to "Being John Malkovich," which explores similar themes with much better success. But what he ends up with is an inaccessible, badly acted farce.


Bartleby Rating

" Terrible "

Rating: PG-13, Opened: Friday, June 7, 2002


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