Having just gained an important city contract, the filing offices of The Boss (David Paymer) need to expand its workforce by one. The office is composed of The Boss, verbose vixen secretary Vivian (Glenn Headly), the near-Postal Ernie (Maury Chaykin), and the macho posturing Randy (Joe Piscopo). In response to thier want ad, one sole applicant appears, a pale faced, odd young man named Bartleby (Crispin Glover). At first Bartleby is a perfect worker, efficient, silent, though off-putting in his complete lack of communication or bonding with anyone. Then, one day when asked to do a task, Bartleby responds with a simple, "I would prefer not to."
The Boss is completely disarmed by Bartleby's demeanor, his passive resistance in refusing to do the chore. He soon realizes Bartleby refuses to do any work other than filing, always responding to the requests with a simple, "I prefer not to." Rather than jump to anger, the Boss becomes sadly sympathetic to Bartleby. He discovers Bartleby never leaves to office, lives there, and seems to survive on a diet of cheese and cracker Handi-Snacks. But then, Bartleby begins to refuse to do any work whatsoever, is unwilling to leave, and remains a constant fixture. The Boss is unsure how to deal with his mysterious, benevolent non-worker who continues to haunt the office premises.
Melvile's "Bartleby" is a story wonderfully ambiguous enough in that it gives many details, gets its point across, but leaves enough vague open spaces of mystery (like Bartleby himself), so it becomes open to interpretation and therefore works on many levels. Such is the case with Claire Denis slant on Melville's "Billy Budd", the film Beau Travail, which filtered Melville's tale of jealousy through her cinematic eye. "Bartleby" is very much like Kafka. When originally reading it, I could only imagine some Kafakesque vision, something dark yet oddly comic. That is what I always assumed would be the route a film would take with the material- the David Lynch approach.
Director/co-writer/co-score composer Jonathan Parker imagines "Bartleby" as a modest, askew, Technicolor, psychotropic pop art, office comedy. If you'll forgive me a lame comparison, it is a bit Edward Scizzorhands and a bit Brazil. Some of these touches include, the boss' window view is of a big yellow dumpster. The office features a large woodland mural covering one wall. After he stops working altogether, Bartleby's focus in the book is his small slant of sunlight through a window, whereas the film updates this into the more modern humming air conditioning vent. The office building itself is a cartoonish, castlelike fixture atop a mountain with freeways of traffic surrounding it.
Crispin Glover is a lucky actor. He may not have a highly prolific output, but he is an actor of a certain caliber and such a peculiar persona that every now and then a role comes along that he must be the first or second choice for on a very short casting list. The role of Bartleby is a definite "Crispin Glover part", a role he seems perfectly suited to play. Glover adequately overplays the alienness of Bartleby that Melville mentions. Glover's Bartleby is like some uncomfortable, timid robot. When asked by The Boss to help tie a bow on a present, Glover's Bartleby enters the office and oddly walks around the room, eyes scanning the present, but cannot comply, like he just wasn't programmed for such a task. But he is also a creature of emotions, though they are ones he cannot communicate why he feels them. He is asked a question, he considers, smiles, and then condemns it, face sinking, brought from a high to low in an unexplained matter of seconds.
Unfortunately beyond Melville's absurdist tone, an understanding of his comments about man, labor, and routine, and some direct references to the original story, all of the farcical and surreal touches Jonathan Parker adds to the story feel as if they were put there by force to pad out the films already brief running time. There is an odd little dream sequence where The Boss imagines Bartleby as Hitler. Other additions like the flirtation between the secretary and the city councilman and the slapstick antics of Ernie, while sometimes amusing and imaginative, ultimately in the grand scheme of the story they just do not work. Melville's short story becomes a thin movie. These added little touches of character and comedy become limp as the film drags along into its conclusion. I think Melville's story is still suited to adaptation, but perhaps this film proves something of feature film length is pushing it.
The DVD: Wellspring
Picture: Non-anamorphic Widescreen. First, I have to note the big minus this transfer gets. It has some trailing ghosting throughout, pretty much, the entire film. It isn't a film of high action or movement, but every little gesture made by the actors is followed by that terrible stuttering trail. I tried it on three different players and each one read it with the same degree of ghosting.
The lavish color scene of 60's pastel shades is not really livened by this transfer. It is a tad too dark and needs just a bit more push in the color department. Likewise, the sharpness could be better. Contrast and overall definitions are okay. I'd say it was a middling, okay, halfway decent transfer, though the aforementioned ghosting was really all I could focus on.
Sound: Dolby Digital Stereo or 5.1 Surround. Sound is good. Dialogue and music have nice clarity and range. There are not a ton of stereo effects, and what benefits the most from the 5.1 mixing is the threremin heavy score.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- Trailer--- Filmographies--- About the Theremin Featurette.--- Interviews with the Cast And Crew (23:32). Every character in the film is interviewed- literally, the actors give the interviews as their characters. The only exception is Glover, who is interviewed as himself, because, obviously, Bartleby wouldn't be the most forthcoming interviewee. --- Mini-Director Commentary (11 mins). Parker, co-writer Catherine Di Napoli, and the art designer, all give brief snippets about the film while clips play.
Conclusion: A modest little offbeat comedy with a premise that doesn't wholly succeed in filling its feature length. The DVD presents some fair extras, though the picture transfer is disappointing, making it not worth a purchase for those attracted to its story and style and only of interest as a casual rental.