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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Bartleby

Starring: Crispin Glover, David Paymer
Director: Jonathan Parker
Rated: NR
RunTime: 83 Minutes
Release Date: March 2001
Genre: Comedy

*Also starring: Glenne Headly, Joe Piscopo, Maury Chaykin, Seymour Cassel

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Some people open their own businesses because they can't picture themselves taking orders from bosses who know less than they do about how run a commercial organization. Thank goodness for that: without such rebels, who would set up mom- and-pop stores that are so convenient to use and add considerable color to neighborhoods? If you're not free enough to set up your own establishment, though, you're probably intimidated by your employer regularly. How many times a day do you get an order from your "superior" that prompt you to say "I prefer not to"? Ten times? And how many times do you restrain yourself and say nothing of the sort. Ten times.

Along comes a guy who decides not to take it any more. He doesn't quit his job when the going gets tough, when he has no intention of carrying out his organization's demands. He doesn't walk out. On the contrary, when invited to leave the firm, he says simply, "I prefer not to." Herman Melville's short story, written in 1851 just three years after Karl Marx in Germany wrote about the alienation of labor in "The Communist Manifesto" is a black comedy, a surreal examination of the failure of most work to satisfy man's creative impulse. While Marx railed against the division of labor in German factories, the inability of anyone on an assembly line to feel a sense that he has really made something worthwhile, Melville dramatized the same alienation in the office. Melville wrote what he knew, having worked not only on the whaler "Acushnet" which formed the basis of his Great American Novel "Moby Dick" but also on jobs as a bank messenger and clerk in a customs house. Remember that offices in his day were not automated like modern setups. To make "Bartley" relevant to a contemporary audience, writer-director Jonathan Parker set up a small office situated, as so many modern workplaces are today, in a remote areas. In fact the company owned and headed by The Boss (David Paymer) could pass for a large gas station cum cafeteria on the New York State Thruway.

Employing the cartoon look evoked by pastel walls, director Jonathan Parker takes us into the little world of The Boss, a public records firm with a generous contract by the city, and a staff of paper shufflers with distinct personalities. Vivian (Glenne Headly), is a seductive woman with a pretentious (and funny) vocabulary; Rocky (Joe Piscopo), a relic of the 1950's, a single man regularly bragging about his women. Ernie (Maury Chaykin) is a slovenly worker, loyal nonetheless, who would not last a week in a major firm. When The Boss needs another hand to help with the work generated by the city contract, he sets up for the movie audience one of the most obvious examples of alienation in this case between the advertisement in the newspaper and the typical reader stating spuriously that he is looking for an adventurous sought willing to take risks (like a whaler perhaps), when the truth is that he is offering a low paying job that is as dull as the dishwater on the "Acushnet."

Though his new hire, Bartleby (Crispin Glover), works out just fine for a week, filing papers in record time, The Boss becomes increasingly concerned when Bart simply refuses to do certain jobs. Asked to verify the accuracy of a document, Bartley replies, "I prefer not to." Pretty soon everyone in the office is using the word "prefer" as frequently as an American 20-year- old uses "like."

In his own adaptation of the Melville novella, Jonathan Parker and his co-writer, Catherine Di Napoli, have evoked the originality, complexity, psychological penetration and symbolic richness of Melville himself. Crispin Glover is perfectly cast as the increasingly distant character who eventually gives up working altogether to stare at the air conditioner vent. Unlike Didi and Gogo of Beckett's play "Waiting for Godot," Glover's title character is not even waiting for anyone, but prefers to look more and more like a statue in Mme Toussaud's museum. David Paymer is likewise a casting coup as a man who becomes increasingly frustrated with this enigmatic employee and is gradually taken to empathize with Bartley and, by extension, to realize his own role in generating meaningless work.

What Parker has accomplished by updating the novella of some 150 years ago is to give a modern audience the same feeling that Melville's own readership had in the mid-19th century the idea that post-industrial revolution work is unsatisfying, engaged in by people who are all just playing the game in order to get the money to live.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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