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Most often filmed in France, Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener is here done in a semi-surreal, updated manner which is as uncomfortable as it is provocative. Newly-promoted to the head of record-keeping, the nameless narrator (David Paymer) finds he needs another employee and his seductive but paranoid office manager (Glenne Headly), worried that she is to be replaced, runs an ad promising "low pay, vibrating workplace". The only applicant is Bartleby (Crispin Glover, as inspired casting here as in Willard), who has lost his position in the dead-letter office because the workplace moved. "Whenever I see a letter of recommendation like this, I wonder how badly the last boss wanted to get rid of the guy," Paymer laughs, a clue to how bad a decision hiring the man will turn out to be. At first, Bartleby files meticulously, outstripping his odd co-workers (studly Joe Piscopo, sad sack Maury Chaykin) but eventually when asked to perform a trivial task, he almost offhandedly says "I would prefer not to." This becomes a catch-phrase as Bartleby withdraws from more and more of his duties and devotes his time to staring at a faulty air-conditioning unit. The manager finds out Bartleby is living in the workplace and realises that the dead letter office literally upped stakes to escape him. He tries to repeat the trick – though moving to more troubled premises loses the city account, and the new tenants of the old office insist it's the manager's responsibility to shift Bartleby. The third act finds Bartleby on the street, staring at the underside of a bridge, and finally dying perhaps because he prefers not to live. A coda, with the hero ranting at a publisher (Carrie Snodgress) who prefers not to publish his book, seems tacked-on but allows for the predictable, inevitable, still relishable punch-line as Paymer refuses to budge from her office.
The strangest, most effective aspect of the story is that the manager
genuinely feels responsibility for his passively monstrous employee
and even worries that Bartleby's preferences not-to might make sense.
Writer-director Jonathan Parker is at his best when concentrating on
Glover, Paymer and Melville, but opens out to include other elements,
from delicately provocative business with Headly's deadpanned double
entendres to more obvious slapstick courtesy of Piscopo and Chaykin.
A few CGI-augmented shots of horrid office buildings ("inaccessible
to pedestrians") atop hills amid freeways have a Gilliamish strangeness,
and there's a Lynchian undertone to the damp, decrepit, hideously-decorated
and laid-out offices.
First published in this form here.
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