Bartleby (2001) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some sexual content
Running Time: 82 min.
Cast: David Paymer, Crispin Glover, Glenne Headly, Joe Piscopo, Maury Chaykin, Seymour Cassel
Director: Jonathan Parker
Screenplay: Jonathan Parker, Catherine DiNapoli
Review published May 23, 2003
If there are any high school or college students looking to get out of an assigned reading of Herman Melville's classic "Bartleby the Scrivener," I would suggest you look elsewhere. This is a very loose adaptation, setting it in modern times, sprucing it up with sitcom-type humor. Basically, it's an office comedy inspired by an old story, carrying forth the themes, if not the content.
Although Glover (Charlie's Angels, Nurse Betty) is the titular character, Paymer (State and Main, The Hurricane) gets most of the screen time as the manager of the city's public records office. The place is a bit dull, full of employees that spend much of their time in personal matters, so Paymer decides to hire another person to pick up the slack that the others leave behind. Due to a poor advertisement, only one person applies, a quirky but quiet man known as Bartleby, and he is soon hired shortly thereafter. At first, he does a terrific job, handling the filing with ease, but tensions begin to arise when Bartleby responds to assignments with the phrase, "I would prefer not to." The boss doesn't like being refused, but is a kind man, allowing it to continue as long as his patience will allow, but even the simplest tasks appear to meet Bartleby's refusal, who by this time has taken to spending all day looking at the air vent for reasons only he might understand.
Bartleby is short and low-budget film, somewhat simplistic in its design, but also refreshing in that way. There isn't a lot of baggage in the story, economically getting the job done in 82 minutes, while providing enough laughs on occasion to not feel like you're being cheated out of more. The main story between Bartleby and the boss is interesting and amusing, but not really enough to support the plot a full-length film. Thankfully, writers Parker and DiNapoli (The Californians) wisely surround the story with some very entertaining characterizations, with Headly playing the saucy office manager, Piscopo (Wise Guys) as the womanizing tough guy, and Chaykin (Mystery Alaska) as the flaky ex-vet still apparently delusional from flashbacks.
While I've never been a great fan of Crispin Glover, he does play a good crackpot, and does a fine job in convincing us that Bartleby is just not like anyone else. Although his behavior isn't always explained, it is fascinating to watch the performance nonetheless, even if it makes the overall film uneven out of the absurdity of his behavior. However, as good as Glover is, it's Paymer that delivers the best performance, perfectly demonstrating a reasonability and calmness on the surface, while inside he is cracking under the pressure of day-to-day management of a side-show circus.
The film isn't perfect, and in fact plays mostly on the level of well-meaning amateurishness, feeling very much like a movie with a first-time writer-director at the helm, which it is. Yet, the good performances and quaint charm are just infectious enough to sit through serious contrivances and some awkwardness for the good comic moments. If you like off-the-wall independent films, or just are obsessed with office comedies, Bartleby gets a modest recommendation for 82 minutes of offbeat charm and strange developments. It exists more as a curiosity than a fully realized production, an experiment in the modernization of a classic story that turns left into the Twilight Zone. All in all, Bartleby can't quite be called a good film, but for a momentary diversion from the norm, it is enough.
©2003 Vince Leo