Bartleby

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Bartleby

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With only five words, "I would prefer not to," Herman Melville created the greatest cipher in American literature, the protagonist of his 1853 short story "Bartleby The Scrivener: A Story Of Wall Street." A legal copyist whose quiet refusal to perform his duties (or to surrender his post) draws nearly everyone around him into his tiny vortex of seeming unreason, Bartleby has provoked endless speculation. The story's resistance to interpretation may explain its enduring appeal. In some respects, it reads like a joke whose punchline is that it has no punchline, or a ghost story with a flesh-and-blood ghost. Melville explains nothing, in the process explaining everything, about both Bartleby and his alienated kin. A film adaptation almost can't help but dissipate the mystery, even with an inspired choice for a lead. Jonathan Parker has enlisted the already-enigmatic Crispin Glover to play Melville's original office drone, but his modern-dress adaptation lacks inspiration in all other respects. The leadenly staged film places Glover in a public-records office overseen by David Paymer, whose initial pleasure in finding the perfect employee to perform thankless office tasks begins to fade as Glover, with nervous politeness, starts to shirk his appointed tasks, opting instead to stare at the air-conditioner vent above his desk. Parker's film is flat beyond the flatness appropriate to the story; the conflict between Glover and Paymer follows Melville's original so squarely that it quickly begins to feel like they're going through the motions. Parker's own additions–Maury Chaykin's slapstick encounter with a water cooler, Joe Piscopo acting like an incongruous cartoon gangster, a Nazi-themed dream sequence–simply seem out of place, as if Parker and co-writer Catherine DiNapoli were merely trying to pad out the film's running time. The only mystery here comes from the film's ability to make such economically haunting source material so dull.

Filed Under: Film

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