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Film review: Bartleby

Published: Friday, Aug. 16 2002 9:15 a.m. MDT

BARTLEBY —** — David Paymer, Crispin Glover, Glenne Headly, Joe Piscopo, Maury Chaykin, Seymour Cassel; rated PG-13 (vulgarity, brief sex, profanity, nudity); exclusively at the Century Theatres 16.

It's difficult to say whether author Herman Melville would have enjoyed "Bartleby," the latest adaptation of his story "Bartleby the Scrivener."

After all, the author of "Moby Dick" spent his last days in obscurity, as he concentrated on penning ethical and philosophical works that weren't appreciated until much later. (His genius, or claim to it, wasn't established until long after his death.)

So in keeping with the spirit of Melville, perhaps this too-peculiar workplace comedy, updated to modern times, may be appreciated in years to come. For now, though, it's just a promising project that came undone because of one crucial bit of miscasting — off-putting, oddball character-actor Crispin Glover, who stars in the title role as the newest addition to an L.A.-area company that keeps track of and stores official records.

Bartleby's position in the company becomes necessary when the company manages to secure a valuable contract with the city. Unfortunately, the only applicant for the job is Bartleby, who comes with a glowing letter of recommendation.

At first, his work ethic puts everyone else's to shame and impresses his unnamed boss (David Paymer). But when Bartleby is asked to verify his caseload of records, he refuses, giving a simple, "I would prefer not to," as his reasoning. The ensuing test of wills between the two men threatens to tear the company apart, as Bartleby's boss gives him every chance to comply — sometimes to the detriment of his fellow employees.

It's a premise that's rife with possibilities, and director/co-screenwriter/composer Jonathan Parker makes a wise choice in trying to emulate the tone of the 1999 cult-favorite workplace comedy "Office Space." (The odd production design also works.)

Still, it's a film that hinges on its casting, and Glover really doesn't fit the part. While his trademark nonchalant manner would seem to be a natural for this material, it instead makes him an unlikable and unsympathetic figure (a serious mistake considering what happens later in the film).

Paymer is better, though it's an error to make him the other primary figure — especially when the supporting characters (played by Glenne Headly, Joe Piscopo and Maury Chaykin) are so much more interesting.

"Bartleby" is rated PG-13 for crude humor (sight gags) and sexual double-entendres, brief sexual contact, scattered use of profanity and nudity (partial female, and nude artwork of sorts). Running time: 93 minutes.


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