Six-time Oscar nominee Ernest Lehman was a specialist at adaptations, helping lovingly usher the likes of Sweet Smell Of Success (which he and Clifford Odets adapted from a novella Lehman wrote), The King And I, The Sound Of Music, and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? onto the big screen. But the veteran screenwriter was defeated by the challenge of bringing Philip Roth’s zeitgeist-capturing novel of angst and onanism to film in his sole directorial effort, 1972’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Lehman’s miscues are legion, from having the thirtysomething Richard Benjamin play both the teenage and adult version of the title character, to reducing the book’s unsparing but nuanced—and ultimately affectionate—depiction of Jewish family life at its most suffocating to vulgar sitcom mugging.
Benjamin, who played a Roth surrogate more successfully in 1969’s Goodbye, Columbus, stars as a tormented man whose psyche is a neverending tug-of-war between his intense, even compulsive carnal desires and his equally intense sexual repression. Benjamin finds the living personification of his most feverish erotic fantasies in a sexually rapacious fashion model nicknamed “The Monkey” (Karen Black), but his attraction to her carries with it disturbing undercurrents of jealousy, obsession, and sour judgment. Benjamin lusts after Black but he does not respect her, and over time that lack of mutual respect becomes toxic, poisoning their unlikely union from the inside.
Roth has been heralded as a peerless chronicler of the male psyche, especially of the Jewish variety. He’s also sometimes been derided as a misogynist, yet the saving grace of Portnoy’s Complaint is the tragicomic poignancy of Black’s performance. As a barely literate woman who sees the cerebral and eminently respectable Benjamin as her redemption, Black radiates heartbreaking neediness and desperation. She’s a sad, ferocious, uncontrollable cosmic force, whereas Benjamin comes off as a leering jerk with a perpetual wolfish gleam in his bedroom eyes. Portnoy’s Complaint oscillates unsteadily between hammy comedy so broad it borders on vaudevillian and moody, uncomfortable sexual psychodrama, causing the lead characters’ intense, irreconcilable internal conflict—which comes across as so compelling, funny, and true in Roth’s groundbreaking novel—to register as mere horniness onscreen. Portnoy’s Complaint does the ultimate injustice to its source material, reducing Roth’s quintessential neurotic Jewish intellectual to a mean-spirited caricature.
Key Features: None.