Some films don't immediately grab you, but instead drop a pellet in the mind that continues to fizz long afterwards. Such a movie is Bartleby, which is based on Herman Melville's novella Bartleby the Scrivener, the tale of a law-firm copyist and 19th-century refusenik who questions the very nature of work. The film is rough going partly because its tone is so unsettling and downright peculiar, and the behavior of the eponymous Bartleby totally enigmatic--especially if you parse it by conventional psychology. But midway through, you begin to 'get' the dark humor of this parable about alienated labor that slyly subverts the notion that the work in many modern-day offices is fulfilling and worthwhile.
A fellow known only as the Boss (the superb David Paymer) presides over a public-records firm in a creepy computer generated building perched on a knoll above a maze of freeways. Enter the new hire Bartleby (the ever-weird Crispin Glover). Formerly of the postal service's 'dead-letter' bureau (i.e., undeliverable mail), Bartleby is a zealous paper-shuffler--until the moment he responds to the Boss' directive in a mild voice with the words, 'I prefer not to.' In the course of the film, this sentence expands into a mantra for one man's revolt against empty work--or, possibly, the very concept of work. Bartleby's co-workers are Rocky (Joe Piscopo), a wiseass womanizer; Ernie (Maury Chaykin), a slovenly guy who answers the morning's 'How are ya' with a detailed account of his woes; and Vivian (Glenne Headly), the sexually insinuating office manager. Bartleby's revolt culminates in doing nothing but staring up at a dirty air vent. And since he prefers not to leave even after he's been fired, the Boss relocates to a new office, while Bartleby is eventually carted off to a homeless shelter.
As the Boss, Paymer adroitly combines fatuous authority with a growing sympathy for Bartleby and his stance. Headly succeeds in coating the most banal statement with sexual innuendo. And Glover--spectrally pale, hair in a strange side bang, eyes inscrutable, body hidden under a generic gray suit--is like the ghost of clerks past. Keeping it just this side of devastating, the film's deft comic touches include a sight gag of Headly sitting at her desk in a shower cap in a new office with mysterious leaks, and Ernie's mishaps with a cartridge toner.
In fact, much of the humor is visual, triggered by the inspired production design. Closely following Melville's 19th century depiction of office anomie, this workplace features windows that face a brick wall and much-utilized garbage-disposal area. The dreariness and artificiality are 'relieved' by a hilarious wall painting of stags in the woods. And the color scheme combines a desolating avocado with harvest yellows and oranges--a corporate fantasy of a cheery ambience conducive to productivity and morale. Overall, the place looks like some mismatched throwback to the '70s.
With a small budget and a brilliant team, director/co-writer Jonathan Parker has brought new relevance to Bartleby's revolt, and converted an office sitcom format into a damning critique of the way many people spend their days.