Of all the young actors to come out of the Brat Pack era, the one who probably got short-changed the most is the great Crispin Glover. Though not exactly a part of that John Hughes crowd, Glover appeared in several films with peers, often stealing every scene from them in which he appeared. When given more substantial parts, he would dominate such films as “Back to the Future”, Hell, in “River’s Edge” he proved capable of being much weirder than even Dennis Hopper, even when the elder actor was really trying. Unfortunately, Glover’s weirdness came through off-screen as well. So much so that with the rare exception of the occasional small indie film, he was mostly relegated to little more than an odd presence in the movies he was actually in. Even those roles came less often as the ’90s wore on.
Amazingly, after seeing nothing from the guy since 1996, last year seemed to mark the beginning of a Glover renaissance. As surprised as I was to find him in Nurse Betty, it was nothing compared to the shock of his Kung Fu-enabled henchman in Charlie’s Angels. Did I then dare expect him soon in a leading role? Well, yeah. Too bad it happened to be in this film.
The main character is really David Paymer, here playing another jittery guy, but one who owns his own public records business. His three current employees, portrayed by Glenne Headly, Maury Chaykin, and Joe Piscopo (yep, still alive), run the gamut of both eccentricity and competency. Having just landed a city contract, he’s going to need more help. The only person to apply for the job is the even more eccentric Bartleby (Glover). A former clerk in the Post Office’s Dead Letter Department, Bartleby turns out to be a good worker, at least for about a week. Then one day, when Paymer asks him to do something he doesn’t want to do, he replies, “I would prefer not to.” Then the next time Paymer asks his newest employee to do something, he again replies, “I would prefer not to.” Pretty soon, Bartleby gives the same reply to everything, even concerning his normal workload. Then, once fired, he indicates that he would prefer not to leave. Paymer eventually arrives at a solution for getting rid of him. However, some time after he realizes that Bartleby just isn’t well and maybe he should have been a little nicer to him. Pathos and whimsy ensue.
Oh, boy. This is not unlike watching one of the movies Jerry Lewis made after that concentration camp/clown epic nearly destroyed his career and his mind. Co-writer/director Jonathan Parker has actually made a modern version of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Melville is often favored for his troubled heroes on their obsessive, nihilistic journeys into the abyss. Of course this kind of thing can be easy to screw up on film, as Parker has done here. The director has tried to dress this up as a wacky workplace satire, but all the mugging from the cast falls flat due to the unimaginative way it’s shot and edited. With all of their performance quirks, there’s also no character here with whom the audience can easily identify. Glover and the rest of the cast really deserve better than what they were given to work with here (well, except for maybe Piscopo). This is just another case of a filmmaker shooting for significance when he should have just tried for competent.