by David Cornelius
If you’re anything like me, you’ve often kept yourself up late at night wondering, “When, oh, when will Crispin Glover and Joe Piscopo finally make a movie together?” If you have, and I just know you have, your question has finally been answered with “Bartleby,” a quirky little picture that takes Herman Melville’s classic story “Bartleby the Scrivener” and spins it into a modern day office-work-is-hell comedy. The filmmakers even go so far as to open with a few factoids about Melville himself, namely that his final days were spent poor, without the least bit of fame, and stuck working as a clerk, which, as we all know, sucks.Glover stars as the title character, a man so bland in his grey suit and grey face that he seems straight out of a black-and-white film when compared to the colorful backgrounds (and colorful characters) that surround him. His Bartleby has answered a want ad placed by the Office of Public Records. “Low pay, dull job,” the ad honestly announced, but then, Bartleby used to work in the Dead Letter Office, and he’s not much of an energetic fellow anyway.
"Glover! Piscopo! Together at last!"
Bartleby starts off to be quite good at his job of filing, until one day, when his boss (David Paymer) asks him to lend a hand, and Bartleby simply replies, “I’d prefer not to.” And so, slowly, Bartleby begins refusing every order and request made by his boss, always replying with a familiar “I’d prefer not to.”
Until now, “Bartleby” has been your standard, if slightly surreal, office comedy. The work shown here is remarkably menial, the workers sapped of their souls by this dreadful job; the comic extremes of this workplace (the building, like all the office buildings in this movie, exists on a fantasy-like hilltop, shut off from all pedestrian traffic like a fortress of commerce) are reminiscent less of “Office Space” or “Nine To Five” and more of “Joe Versus the Volcano,” with maybe just a pinch of “Brazil” for good measure. Bartleby’s coworkers aren’t characters as much as they are caricatures; there’s the oversexed receptionist (Glenne Headly), the macho doofus (Piscopo), the stressed-out nervous wreck (Maury Chaykin). All are interesting to watch, with their quirks and tics and odd little ways of surviving the work day.
Things jump into full-on surrealism when Bartleby begins refusing every chore, opting instead to simply stand and stare at the air conditioning vent. “I’ve given up working,” he explains. But even after he’s been duly fired, Bartleby refuses to leave the office. Again, he’d “prefer not to.”
Directed by Jonathan Parker and written by Parker and Catherine DiNapoli (both newcomers), “Bartleby” tries a bit too hard to be too obviously kooky - Paymer’s character speaks as if he’s still in Melville’s story; the musical score, cowritten by Parker, relies heavily on the Theramin, of all weird-sounding instruments. Even the casting of Glover seems to be less for his talents and more for the fact that his mere appearance adds a few wacky points to any project.
But despite its strained efforts to be offbeat, the film’s still a good one. Wacky points or no, Glover is perfect for the role, and Paymer lends a strange, almost addictive voice to his character’s unique vocal style. It is many times genuinely funny, with familiar workplace troubles getting bent in all the right ways to find comic exaggeration. And at a mere 83 minutes, “Bartleby” ends just as its ideas start to wear thin.Plus, it has the privilege of being the first truly good Joe Piscopo movie since, um, well... let me get back to you on that one.
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originally posted: 02/27/07 13:36:03