Jun 12, 2002 at 12:00 am

At the beginning of writer-director Oliver Parker’s debut feature, an adaptation of a puzzling short story by Herman Melville, a series of three title cards appears attempting to put the story into some perspective vis-à-vis the author’s career. The second card reads: “At the peak of (Melville’s) success, he turned his attention to darker moral and philosophical questions, writing Moby Dick and ‘Bartleby the Scrivener.’” At which point one may wonder: Can this film be trusted? The peak of Melville’s success was the publication of his first novel, Typee, in 1846 — after that it was all downhill. By the time the aforementioned novel and short story were published (in 1851 and 1853, respectively), he was already barreling his way back to obscurity, hurried along by uncomprehending reviews and a dwindling readership. Dying virtually unknown, he was critically resurrected in the 1920s and entered into the official canon.

This may seem like a small thing, but one would hope that anyone setting out to give their interpretation of the inscrutable “Bartleby” would have done their homework, though one suspects that the purpose of the quoted title card is to cast Melville as a heroic seer who fatally jeopardized his immense popularity by doggedly pursuing his vision. In truth, Melville wrote a couple of (by his own admission) hack jobs in an attempt to re-win his Typee audience, but to no avail. And so the odd mood of “Bartleby” — its comic fatalism, its absurdism that seems so weirdly modern — was the work of someone briefly successful and now sliding toward failure, and its passive-aggressive protagonist is a model of civilized anguish.

The story is fairly simple. Bartleby is hired by a Wall Street law firm to be a copyist, a tedious job involving the writing and proofreading of long legal documents. At first he seems to be a model employee, quiet and industrious, until one day, responding to a simple request from his boss, he replies, “I prefer not to.” The boss is distracted enough to let it slide, but it soon becomes apparent that this is going to be Bartleby’s response to everything — he prefers not to work, not to leave the office once he’s fired, not to eat once he’s thrown in jail. He literally “prefers” himself to death. The story is narrated by Bartleby’s boss, a humane man disturbed by the position that he’s put in by Bartleby’s passive defiance. He must respond to the copyist’s intransigence, though he would prefer not to.

This wouldn’t seem to have great cinematic potential (though it’s been filmed at least once before, as a dour but effective 1972 British movie with Paul Scofield and John McEnery), and Parker and his co-scenarist Catherine DiNapoli have, understandably, felt compelled to jazz it up a little. It’s been updated to the present and set in a slightly surreal public records office, the decor all bright clashing colors, in a building set on a mountaintop amid some suburban freeway nexus.

Bartleby’s two comically stylized co-workers have been turned into an oversexed tough guy (Joe Piscopo) and a demented babbler (Maury Chaikin). A young boy who does odd jobs has morphed into a sexy secretary (Glenne Headly). This does no damage to the mood of the original tale since the humorously dysfunctional office worker, seemingly such a modern type, can be traced back to Melville’s story. Only some tacked-on stuff with Headly vamping a city manager (Seymour Cassel, Mr. Indie Cred himself) and a nude dream sequence indicate a certain anxiety on the part of the filmmakers regarding our ability to absorb the story without a little sweetening.

As the boss, David Paymer is good at conveying the frustrations of an essentially decent man, but as Bartleby, Crispin Glover is too much of a weird thing. Bartleby should be nondescript and unreadable, but as played by Glover he seems intensely neurotic, if not insane. This throws Paymer’s reactions off-balance and makes his tolerance of his troublesome employee inexplicable. And when he observes Bartleby’s final fate (somewhat altered from the original story), his pained utterance of “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” — which comes directly from Melville — has no resonance, partly because people just don’t say “Ah, humanity!” anymore and partly because Bartleby the everyman has become Bartleby the nutcase, and a story about pure alienation has become another riff on the craziness of office life.

Ah, Melville! Ah, adaptations that overreach!

Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].