Office life gets a quirky sendup in classic 'Bartleby'

There's something infinitely lovable about a movie that starts with an ancient photo of the author Herman Melville and a brief, serious little introduction, Cliffs Notes-style, of his life and work. The former English majors among us will wriggle in their seats with pleasure ... ah, yes, Melville. Due for a Jane Austen-style movie renaissance, no?

Well, maybe not, although "Bartleby" is a stylish and often very funny contemporary adaptation of the story of the office worker who "would prefer not to." Director Jonathan Parker has made a deliberately quirky, surreal film, and while it's full of imagination and appealingly goofy performances, there's just the slightest hint of thematic hammer-thumping in the proceedings that mars the overall effect. Soul-numbing work is soul-numbing, Parker tells us. Well, yes. Then what?

Crispin Glover, with a shock of dark hair and a skin tone that suggests too much time spent under fluorescent lights, is weirdly effective as Bartleby, who shows up for work at the city records manager's office but soon is spending his days staring at an air vent.

When asked to file, or to run an errand, or to remove himself from the premises, he replies, "I prefer not to." As Melville readers know, this soon spirals out of control, resulting in the immortal cry, "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!" But this cry gets cried far too early in the movie — the point is made, and yet the story continues, padded out with amusing but pointless conversations between the workers.

David Paymer, as Bartleby's hapless boss, gives the impression of a man very happy to be dotting I's and crossing T's — until Bartleby comes along. The other office denizens — especially Glenne Headly as a vague secretary who wafts around with a feather duster, and Maury Chaykin, who's so bored he sadly photocopies his sandwich — are uniformly funny.

The production design (particularly the office park, which floats like a dark cloud over a web of freeway) is creepily evocative. Call "Bartleby" an intriguing near-miss.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or


With Crispin Glover, David Paymer, Glenne Headly, Seymour Cassel, Joe Piscopo. Directed by Jonathan Parker, from a screenplay by Parker and Catherine di Napoli. 82 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content. Varsity, through Thursday.