Brought to the screen in a manner as stylized as its chartreuse and orange color scheme, BARTLEBY updates Herman Melville’s tale of non-conformity in a dead-end 19th-century office job, Bartleby the Scrivener, to the oppressive world of the 20th-century dead-end office job.
That would be a public records office run by newly appointed Boss, David Paymer, and peopled by the usual odd assortment of characters typical to office life, more or less. Vivienne, the office femme fatale, creates treats such as chocolate nipples and sentences such as “the precipitation has permeated the premises.” Ernie, the office schlub, who greets each ‘how’s it going’ with a litany of his latest troubles, in addition to the regular and traumatic entanglements he endures with office equipment, and Rocky, the office stud with a new girl every night and an office chair with more gizmos and controls than the space shuttle. They have nothing in common but the passive resignation of holding down jobs without joy.
Enter Bartleby, pale, introverted, and radiating an oddness that is anything but endearing. He’s the only applicant for a job whose description includes such bravely honest highlights as low pay, no benefits and a vibrating building. With no other applicants on the horizon, the boss hires this refugee from the post office’s dead letter office who carries with him a suspiciously upbeat letter of recommendation. At first, all goes well. Bartleby does prodigious amounts of filing, but when asked to do anything else: make phone calls, run errands, the response is a polite but firm “I’d prefer not to.” There is no rancor, no defiance, only the same demeanor that would decline an invitation to lunch or a second helping of chocolate nipples. Slowly, the number of things Bartleby prefers to do dwindles down to nothing save for standing beneath an air vent, head cocked upwards to feel the faint breeze. Disruptive in the meekest possible way, unresponsive to human interaction, and maddeningly unreasonable without ever being rude, Bartleby never offers an explanation and eventually throws the delicate balance of the office’a dynamic into chaos simply by being there. Though, and it is important to note, the dislike of Bartleby somehow gives his co-workers a common purpose, that is to say, to taunt the misfit even as they unconsciously pick up his peculiar way of expressing himself with the word “prefer.”
The performances are all stellar. Crispin Glover brings his own brand of otherworldliness to the role of a man who isn’t there in a larger than life sort of way. Glenne Headley’s Vivienne has a sinister purr to her verbal erudition. Paymer, as the Boss, has the faux pluckiness and tamped-down desperation of a man whose life is destined to be spent pushing papers no one cares about. Joe Piscipo as Rocky, pumped up and sporting suits sharp enough to cut glass, is all smooth veneer, making a perfect foil to Ernie, played by Maury Chaykin as the rumple on the bedspread of life. Look for lovely cameos by Dick Martin, Carrie Snograss, and Josh Kornbluth, too.
Director and co-writer Jonathan Parker brings a deadpan humor to this surreal gothic office piece that keeps the action intriguingly off-kilter. He fails only in conveying why the Boss, and by extension the audience, should become so invested emotionally in what happens to Bartleby the man. Still, the mirror BARTLEBY the film holds up to la vie quotidienne is both savage and poignant, funny and unsettling, making it a commentary on human nature that is well worth checking out.