Passive aggression was probably first standardized by Herman Melville a century and a half ago in his short story "Bartleby the Scrivener." The law copyist of the title is a stickler for his job description. When his boss asks him to deviate the slightest bit, Bartleby rebels with the unresounding rallying call "I prefer not to."
Jonathan Parkerís adaptation of this pre-Kafka parable of modern anomie takes place in a soulless industrial park on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere where the boss (David Paymer) of a county recorderís office is looking for another drone to supplement the colorful and incompetent team that includes Ernie (Maury Chaykin as a kind of cross between Abbie Hoffman and Rain Man), Rocky (Joe Piscopo, who looks as if he reeked of cheap aftershave), and Vivian (a sad, sexy, and sweetly witty Glenne Headly). Enter Bartleby (Crispin Glover, demonstrating that he doesnít require cockroaches in his shorts to put in a creepy performance), whose needs are few and who files like nobodyís business until the Boss makes an ill-fated request and Bartleby issues his adamant response. The background antics of the rest of the office amuse for a while until Parker launches the tale into the thin air of lofty meaning, making Bartleby a martyr of dehumanization when in fact heís an advocate of it. Parker ingenuously holds out for freedom and individuality; Melville recognizes that when offered the chance to expand their lives beyond the regimented and delimiting, most people would prefer not to.