Portnoy's Complaint

1972, Movie, NR, 101 mins

Review

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Some books are better left unfilmed. In this case, Roth's novel was very funny and often shocking for its own sake, but the film, an embarrassment for everyone involved, fails miserable in adapting the book to the big screen. Benjamin, who had already established himself with his work as the ultimate Jewish schlemiel in GOODBYE, COLUMBUS; DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE; and MARRIAGE OF A YOUNG STOCKBROKER, was the obvious choice to be cast in the title role here as the whining Alexander Portnoy. Beckerman, a "packager" rather than a producer at the time, acquired the rights to the book early, so he is listed as part of the team that dispensed this dismal attempt at a comedy. Lehman struck out in three departments: producing, writing, and for the first time, directing. The one notable exception to the carnage was Black, who seemed to be acting in a better movie than everyone else, and who maintained her characterization with depth and grace, while the sound of bombs was being heard in the background. Benjamin spends a great deal of time carping to his analyst, Barnes, who never says a word to the patient. Benjamin works for the city of New York as the assistant commissioner of human opportunity (whatever that means) and, during his off-hours, spends great lengths of time in the bathroom making up for his sexual frustration. His father is Somack (who was much better in his Alka-Seltzer commercial), and his mother is Grant, a shrewish woman who smothers her son like a Hebrew Mildred Pierce. (Grant is miscast badly as she is much too young and attractive to play the role.) Grant's greatest fear is that she will lose her son to that most dreaded of all creatures, a shikse (Gentile woman). Occasionally Benjamin dallies with Berlin, the raunchy Italian daughter of a local hoodlum, but he finds no solace in Berlin, and his sexual frustration continues unbridled as we watch him grow from preteen (played by, can you believe this, Seamen?) to adulthood. We see it all in flashback as Benjamin tells Barnes about having met Black, the girl of his fantasies, a model whose nickname is "Monkey" because she can fall into all sorts of sexual positions most humans dare not attempt. He is finally happy as he continues his affair with Black but is also somewhat unnerved when she drops hints about a more permanent situation, like, perhaps, marriage. They have a sensational weekend in Dorset, Vermont, and he decides to bring his lover out of the closet and introduce her to his coworkers. He takes her to a large gala at the mayor's mansion on New York's upper East Side, but they squabble and she finally allays his anger by performing an unspeakable act upon his person. Benjamin is becoming sexually uninhibited and takes Black away to Europe, where they hire a Roman streetwalker, De Sapio, to form a threesome in their hotel room. Benjamin can't handle the evening and winds up tossing his cookies. When Black says she will commit suicide by jumping from a balcony unless he gives her a gold ring, Benjamin does what any chicken-hearted neurotic would do: he leaves. He grabs a flight to Israel and arrives in Tel Aviv, hoping to find his Jewish heritage there. As he strolls the streets he wonders whether Black did in fact jump from the balcony. Now he picks up a gorgeous Israeli, Clayburgh, takes her to his hotel, and attempts to force his attentions on her. The result is a swift kick to Benjamin's groin. Back to the present and Benjamin has just completed his session with Barnes, who still shows no response. He exits the psychiatrist's office and goes strolling away, never seeing Black, who is within eyesight and very much alive and kicking. The film, as bad as it is, does have one or two funny moments. And the production, done so slickly, does veil, to some degree, the horrible script and bad performances. leave a comment

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