Herman Melville’s marvelously bizarre 1853 novella about a supremely strange law clerk in nineteenth-century New York City, and his effect on his astonished employer, has never attracted the attention of adapters to the degree that the later “Billy Budd” has. To my knowledge, there have been only two previous attempts to transfer it to film–a rather ponderous 1970 effort by Anthony Friedman, starring Paul Scofield and John McEnerny, and a 1976 French version by Maurice Ronet, with Michel Lonsdale and Maxence Mailfort (unseen by me). That’s probably because the story’s enigmatic themes and oblique style are difficult enough on the printed page, and obstinately resist dramatization. But Jonathan Parker demonstrates that–even on a limited budget and a mere twenty-day shooting schedule–ingenuity, a sense of style, and a willingness to embrace rather than slight Melville’s gleeful obscurity can make “Bartleby” as satisfyingly odd and intriguing a tale as it was a century and a half ago. His picture doesn’t hesitate to change or add characters and insert new bits of business, but most of them seem true to the spirit of the original, and even when they prove less than satisfactory one can appreciate the intent behind them. The result–which is rather like a more cerebral version of Mike Judge’s underrated “Office Space” (1999)–has a delightfully dour, deadpan tone and stylistic consistency. It will certainly be too weird for a mass audience, but connoisseurs of the cinema of the peculiar should find it a wonderfully imaginative treat.
The treatment, given the long passage of time since the story first appeared, is really astonishingly faithful to the source, capturing a good deal of its existential perplexity within a twentieth-century context. The film is told, as was Melville’s tale, by the employer–in this case the unnamed boss of a records-maintaining firm (David Paymer), who narrates the story from his perspective. The Boss, as he’s called, heads a small office in which he supervises three employees–smug ladies’ man Rocky (Joe Piscopo), the chunky, perpetually embittered and klutzy Ernie (Maury Chaykin) and svelte, ambitious Vivian (Glenne Headly). In need of additional help, he makes the mistake of hiring Bartleby (Crispin Glover), a gaunt, cadaverous, preternaturally laconic fellow whose efficiency is balanced by a tendency to stare stoically into an overhead air vent and who unaccountably begins to refuse certain tasks by simply saying, “I would prefer not to.” Before long his attitude has thrown the whole office into an uproar and endangered the business; and the Boss, unwilling or unable to confront the situation directly even after he’s lost clients and tried unsuccessfully to terminate his employee, decides to handle the matter obliquely by moving. But even this extreme measure doesn’t resolve things.
On the surface “Bartleby” might seem just a slight, perverse little anecdote, but Parker knows that to dismiss Melville’s piece in that way would be like calling “Billy Budd” the story of a neophyte sailor’s naivete. The original subtly raises questions about dehumanization, social responsibility, chance, and free will, though the author’s glancing, offhanded approach never turns it into something merely didactic; there’s an bitingly humorous ambiguity to it that seems prophetically Kafkaesque. Parker isn’t entirely successful in matching that tone, but it’s not for lack of trying. Working with Catherine Di Napoli, he’s invented some good modern equivalents for many of the novella’s elements; Rocky and Ernie, for instance, are clever variants on the complementary clerks (Turkey and Nippers) of the original (though Vivian, unhappily, is too broad a replacement for Melville’s office boy, her sultry sexuality coming across as an unnecessary nod to modern tastes). Moreover, aided by designers Rasario Provenza, Deborah Stairs Parker and Morganne Newson, he’s created a distinctive look for the picture (on an obviously limited budget)–one that emphasizes strong neon colors upfront (against which Batleby’s black suit stands in stark contrast) and dank, dreary backgrounds.
He’s also secured fine, detailed work from most of his cast. Paymer is as good as he’s ever been, catching the Boss’ amazement, near-panic and concern with graceful reserve; and Glover puts his natural oddity to good use as the impassive, strangely determined title character. Piscopo is merely adequate and Headly crippled by the coquettish nature of Vivian, but Chaykin proves a delightfully curmudgeonly type (as well as a skilled slapstick artist–a scene in which he wrestles with a water cooler and vacuum cleaner is priceless). Seymour Cassel, Dick Martin and Carrie Snodgress appear in brief cameos, to no great effect; in fact, the sequence in which Snodgress plays a book publisher comes across as a heavy-handed elaboration of a point that Melville made far more economically.
“Bartleby” isn’t a perfect realization of Melville’s masterly little exercise, and it will certainly prove too deliberate, quirky and elusive for many viewers. It represents, however, an honest, imaginative attempt to capture the essence of an admittedly difficult original, and some will embrace it for its style, its understated wit, its periodic flashes of hilarity, and its fidelity to the author’s serious subtext.