Who's in it? David Paymer, Crispin Glover, Maury Chaykin, Joe Piscopo, Glenne Headly
You might like it if you liked: "Office Space," Moby Dick
Rated PG-13 for some sexual content
Running Time: 1 hour 22 minutes
Director Jonathan Parker gets points simply for trying to tackle the writings of Herman Melville. The author's 1853 story "Bartleby, the Scrivener" isn't as lengthy as his allegorical whaling novel Moby Dick, but it's a dense and internal piece of fiction that would seem difficult, if not unlikely, material for a movie.
In bringing the tale to the screen, Parker and his co-screenwriter Catherine Di Napoli (a former Independence, Mo., resident) move the story from 19th- century New York to present- day California but leave the skeleton of Melville's story.
David Paymer ("State and Main") plays the Boss, the proprietor of an office that stores and manages records for an unnamed city. The work he and his subordinates do is dull and unrewarding, a malaise may explain why the only employees he's been able to attract are a dim slob named Ernie (Maury Chaykin), a would-be lothario named Rocky (long missing "Saturday Night Live" alumnus Joe Piscopo) and Vivian (Glenne Headly), a bright but disturbingly libidinous secretary. Little seems to happen there.
When the workload increases, Vivian places a blisteringly honest ad in the paper, and a lone applicant still shows up. Bartleby (Crispin Glover of "Charlie's Angels") says little but handles the files prodigiously. This factor keeps him employed even though his eccentricities, like sleeping in the office after hours, alienate the rest of the crew.
Gradually, his productivity diminishes. He goes from refusing to perform small tasks like proofreading to merely staring at ceiling vent all day. By doing nothing but politely announcing, "I would prefer not to," he manages to aggravate the Boss and cause as much commotion as if he had driven through the place with a bulldozer.
As in Melville's original, the nature of Bartleby's passive resistance is never explained. Fortunately Glover manages to take what could have been a flat, repetitive role intriguing. He projects a quiet but dynamic torment through his quirky body language that proves an effective counterpoint the passive nature of the role.
As much as Glover gives the role, the somewhat shallow heart of both the film and the short story is that of the Boss. "Bartleby" is more about his inner battles with pettiness, compassion and vindictiveness than the title character's eccentricities. Paymer, an Oscar nominee for "Mr. Saturday Night," plays him just sympathetically enough to make us care about him despite his repeated acts of hubris and petty ambition.
Parker's modest budget proves to be an asset. The cramped main set, with its gaudily-colored furniture and the fantastically ugly "nature-inspired" wallpaper, is a vivid personification of white- collar hell. The Boss's office even affords him an unobstructed view of the building's trash dumpster.
Much of the humor in "Bartleby" has a subtlety that Melville would relish. But some of the gags (like Headley's relentless flirtations) fall flat or come out of nowhere. Chaykin has a hilarious scene where he accidentally demolishes the office by trying to juggle the water cooler and the copier, but the sequence seems out of character with the rest of the flick.
It's almost as if Parker and Di Napoli had too many ideas to tackle with this one. Still, this is a problem that more filmmakers should have but sadly prefer not to.
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