This film is an adaptation of a short story written by Herman Melville almost 150 years ago. Yet the message of one man’s refusal to be a cog in the wheel of industry is a theme that can be well understood today. The screenplay, written by Jonathan Parker and Catherine DiNapoli, creates a surreal suburban office environment, where the office complex is a monolithic boxlike structure, decorated in lime-green and tangerine. The work is tedious, the pay low and the job consists of categorizing and filing an endless amount of public documents.
There’s the boss, played with deadpan dignity as well as a lot of heart, by David Paymer. There are the office workers: Joe Piscopo, cast as Rocky, the “know-it-all ladies man; Maury Chaykin cast as Ernie, a pathetic complainer; and Glenne Headly, cast as Vivian, the office flirt. I don’t usually like comedies but I found myself laughing at loud at the satire of office situations carried to extreme, such as Ernie’s struggle with the photocopy machine and the only fresh air coming from a ceiling vent that is fuzzy with dust.
The scene is set for the introduction of the title character, Bartleby, played by Crispin Glover. He’s a tall, shy man who stammers when he speaks although also he makes a strong physical presence. At first he’s good at his work, but little by little, when asked to do a task, he simply replies, “I prefer not to.”
The setting might have been updated to modern times, but it followed Melville’s story in theme and intent. And the eventual impact that Bartleby makes on the boss keeps the original tone. The boss’s role is the most demanding as he goes though his own kind of changes during the course of the film and David Paymer’s performance is outstanding. The other characters are excellent but their roles more static, and don’t call for a wide variety of changes in emotional intensity.
There’s a slight unsettling feeling to the film and it’s not for everyone. It tries to blend a serious theme with comedy. However, as someone who has worked in offices all my life, I must say that the director really got the essence of what dead-end jobs and co-worker personalities are all about. However, I was the only person in the theater laughing.
I recommend this film for those acquainted with the Melville classic and for those who will appreciate an offbeat theme. Others might just not get it.
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I was originally NOT going to give Bartleby 5 stars, but with all the bad reviews here, I thought I would even things out a bit. I think a lot of people just didn’t get it, although granted the short story by Herman Melville that Bartleby is based on is certainly a lot easier relate to. The movie was sort of parody thereof. It been suggested that Bartleby is suffering from soul sickness. That he is dead inside from all the years spent at the dead letter office. He is just existing on existence’s most minimalist level. He’d “prefer not to” because he realizes the futility of it all. I think the biggest problem with the movie was that they were trying to turn something heavy into a “comedy” when clearly the label doesn’t apply.
The acting I thought was great especially Crispin Glover and Glenne Headly. Also the colors that they used were fantastic, Crispin Glover was literally black and white , in fact I am sure they used makeup on Crispin, there is no way he is that pale.
Overall highly recommend if you are looking for something a bit different.
Jonathan Parker has fashioned an occasionally very funny dark comedy based on Herman Melville’s novelette Bartleby the Scrivener in which Crispin Glover nails the title character dead solid perfect. Set in an obscure, tiny Public Records office, Parker effectively transposes Melville’s constrained environment to the present day–although it could just as easily be set at any time from the 60s up to today.
The other office staff–Maury Chaykin’s wacky, frustrated Ernie; Joe Piscopo’s tough-guy, macho Rocky; and Glenn Headly’s “sultry, steamy, and moist” Vivian are great characters as well, as is the head of the office played by David Paymer. The casting is excellent and in one truly hilarious sequence, Ernie fumbles a printer toner cartridge into a water cooler with disastrously uproarious consequences.
Three quarters of the film is great as we see Bartleby repeatedly declaim his stance of individuality–the only thing he can cling to–”I would prefer not to”. He’s eventually let go by the boss and here Paymer, to his credit, does an excellent job at conveying the humanity that a boss should ideally have and that, sadly, is missing all too often–and at the same time, underlying the humor in the situation(s).
Yet the ending of the film is a serious letdown. By then, the comedy has completely vanished and we are left with a portentous (and oft-repeated) declamation by Paymer of the film’s tagline that, unfortunately, sours the film too much. Had Parker sustained the sharpness, wit, and intelligence greatly in evidence prior to the heavy-handed ending, this would have been an excellent addition to the small group of black workplace comedies (Shock to the System, Swimming with Sharks, et. al.) that have given a much-needed kick in the pants to the overly serious requirements of the American office.
As it is, the ending drastically weakens the film. But it’s worth seeing for the great characters which also include Seymour Cassel as a higher-up and Carrie Snodgress as a haughty publisher, and for the witty repartee. (Glenn Headly, in particular, is great).