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Bartleby would prefer not to
by SFS Staff on Aug 20, 2004
Some people seem to think Herman Melville's short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" is worthy of that page-to-screen jump. The 1970 British version, directed by Michael Friedman, starts off promisingly enough, with the straight-as-an-arrow Bartleby walking through a corporate landscape to a funky 60s style score, but the film soon drowns in its own dullness. There was also a 1976 French Bartleby directed by Maurice Ronet, and now Jonathan Parker's 21st century Bartleby brings back the stoic, eerily deranged office worker, who's played by the already brilliantly eerie Crispin Glover.
Melville's story is about a near-mute, highly efficient, seemingly lobotomized man who takes an office job that's about as boring as he is. He's a robot in a starched suit, diligently going about his duties, except for one quirk: When Bartleby doesn't want to do something (which is often) he simply tells his boss, "I'd prefer not to." Sound familiar now? So this shakes the boss up, because Bartleby IS efficient after all, and the phrase is just so polite-sounding. "I'd prefer not to." Repeat that about 250 times, throw in some extra dialogue, and there you have it.
It seems like Melville was trying to comment on that danger of office environments and mindless work to suck out our passion and individuality. Or something. There's a lot that a filmmaker can do with such material, which may be why such a simple story has been adapted three times. With this latest version, Parker ushers Bartleby into 2002 and jazzes up the other office workers: there's the oversexed, breathy office manager (Glenne Headly); the slimy womanizer (Joe Piscopo); the overweight Vietnam vet (Maury Chaykin); and the bossman himself (David Paymer). The cramped, windowless office with the droning air conditioner doesn't deter Bartleby from taking a job at all - he could care less, about anything. The other workers call him "the wax man," and seem kind of fascinated by this guy who's basically as animated as a file cabinet. His boss, who narrates the film, is a single, middle-aged guy who seems about as lonely as Bartleby-maybe that's why he can't bring himself to fire him when the "I'd prefer not to" tactic gets out of hand. Eventually the boss realizes that Bartleby and his polite rebelliousness have to go, and sends him out into the world, homeless, jobless and heading toward insanity.
This update definitely breathes some fresh air into the dialogue and situations, much to the credit of Parker and co-screenwriter Catherine DiNapoli. There are some legitimately funny moments, mainly supplied by Bartleby's colorful co-workers, which save this version from the drudgery of Friedman's more verbally and visually austere approach. Parker also sets Bartleby's world up like a Tim Burton/Dr. Seuss tableau-the city's buildings are all perched high atop cartoonish hills, isolated from each other except for the long, winding freeway paths that connect them, and the claustrophobic office has splashes of bright yellows, reds, and oranges - mainly supplied by the office manager's cleavage-happy outfits. The film ultimately is entertaining, but nothing short of a total rewrite could make Melville's story all that engrossing. It still makes you never want to hear the phrase "I'd prefer not to" again.
1 hour 22 minutes
by SFS Staff on Aug 20, 2004