When filing clerks answer back

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Jonathan Parker’s film transplants Herman Melville’s short story to a version of modern-day LA that emphasises the city’s alienation and sheer weirdness. David Paymer plays the dull but decent boss of a company hired to look after stacks of public records, his offices buried inside a mysterious modern block on a hilltop. Among his staff are macho Joe Piscopo, blundering Maury Chaykin and flirtatious Glenne Headly. None of them can cope with the arrival of Crispin Glover’s Bartleby, who’s answered a press ad that Headly’s placed offering “low pay, dull job”. Glover plays the role in glazed, pasty-faced slow motion, trapped inside a black suit that doesn’t quite fit. At first the model filing clerk, he starts replying, “I would prefer not to,” to all subsequent requests to lend a hand. His descent into inertia, apathy and death walks the line from queasy humour to pathos, as Paymer’s efforts to help founder on Bartleby’s blank inscrutability. Production values are comically cheap and the moral is left up to you, but some fine performances make it linger in the memory.


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