Review: Bartleby

The film’s quirky, surreal mise-en-scène meshes poorly with the curiously unfunny yet not necessarily terrible deadpan humor.

Bartleby
Photo: Outrider Pictures

Jonathan Parker’s Bartleby should have been the be-all, end-all of films about the anomie of office life. The daily grind seems to suck as hard today as it did back when Herman Melville wrote Bartleby the Scrivener, yet this film’s modern-day Bartleby (Crispin Glover) is more vampire than alienated working stiff. Production designer Rosario Provenza’s lime green walls compliment Glover’s anemic makeup, while the garish décor of the film’s office space looks and feels like it would be the perfect antidote for the drudgery and monotony of clerical work. Bartleby goes to work for the Boss (David Paymer) at a municipal public records office situated atop a surreal rocky knoll inaccessible by foot. Barleby’s too-colorful co-workers are the slimy Guido Rocky (an obnoxious Joe Piscopo), the messy Ernie (Maury Chaykin, the film’s hysterical saving grace) and the sexed-up office manager Vivian (the lovely Glenne Headley doing her best Susan Sarandon impersonation). The hyper-efficient Bartleby turns conscientious objector when the Boss asks him to notarize a box of city records. Where Bartleby’s “I prefer not to” non-violent resistance should have been representative of the ennui of an entire working nation, Parker more effectively suggests this disenchantment via a clever though too-late-to-even-matter graphic match between an air vent and an clinical office building’s exterior walls. The film’s quirky, surreal mise-en-scène (is getting to work really that hard?) meshes poorly with the curiously unfunny yet not necessarily terrible deadpan humor. A few glances at noisy air vents do not exactly suggest the workman’s dissatisfaction with the world. Headley’s alliterations (“There appears to be precipitation permeating the premises”) become increasingly amusing though I have yet to swallow Parker’s “dead letter” metaphor. And while the Boss’s enlightenment plays out like a unnecessary afterthought, there’s something remotely humbling in seeing the Man acknowledge how working stiffs are so unceremoniously filed away.

Score: 
 Cast: David Paymer, Crispin Glover, Glenne Headly, Joe Piscopo, Maury Chaykin, Seymour Cassel, Carrie Snodgress, Dick Martin  Director: Jonathan Parker  Screenwriter: Catherine DiNapoli, Jonathan Parker  Distributor: Outrider Pictures  Running Time: 82 min  Rating: PG-13  Year: 2002  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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