“Portnoy’s Complaint,” Ernest Lehman’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s 1969 novel, is–much like two other 1970s movies discussed earlier on this site, “Diary of a Mad Housewife” and “The Choirboys”–a true-blue Time Capsule movie. By now, directors have learned that most attempts to make films out of monologue-driven novels, narrated mostly from the protagonist’s head, result in disaster–think “Bright Lights, Big City.” Also, thanks to Neil Simon, Woody Allen and their imitators, the past 40 years have been dominated by films with neurotic Jewish heroes, “schlemiels” with overbearing mothers who imbue them with self-hatred and hypochondria and an innate inability to relate to women.
In 1972, when Roth’s bodily function-obsessed prose could still shock mainstream audiences–20 years before movies like “Happiness” and “American Pie” and “There’s Something About Mary” achieved worldwide success through graphic semen-related visual gags–it must have seemed like a bold idea to bring “Portnoy’s Complaint” to the screen. Today, even the book reads like a one-note, not particularly scintillating account of a Jewish pervert; the only fresh angle is that the narrator is telling his lurid thoughts to a psychoanalyst (AKA us), in one long, rambling monologue. Naturally, the screen version–since back then Lehman probably couldn’t get studio money just to videotape a one-man play–excises all of the intimacy that made the vulgar novel memorable. Lehman turns the narrator’s anecdotes into claustrophobic, shrill, farcical vignettes; the dialogue is stilted, overly literary, while all of the narrator’s coarse descriptions become equally coarse visual jokes.
As a result, “Portnoy’s Complaint” is pure Borscht Belt overkill, non-stop, stale ethnic jokes punctuated by crude, queasy actualizations of Freudian theories. Besides the fact that the jokes aren’t funny, the film probably failed as miserably as it did because it attempts to make us sympathize with a man who embodies some of the most loathsome characteristics in society; he’s a condescending lawyer, a whiny Mama’s boy, nice to mean, belittling women and belittling to nice women. How are we supposed to care about his misadventures, in the sack and elsewhere?
Still, “Portnoy’s Complaint” deserves a few plaudits for tackling certain subjects–premature ejaculation, chronic masturbation, that classic schlemiel fear of castration–that were likely risque at the time. Though the movie is clearly terrible, you can watch it aghast, mouth wide open, at the fact that it was ever released, ever approved by studio heads. Today, comedies of embarrassment–“American Pie,” say, or almost anything with Ben Stiller–are required to have a lovable protagonist, almost by default; “Portnoy’s Complaint” gives us a creepy guy with creepy thoughts, acting on those thoughts, for nearly two hours.
As in “Diary of a Mad Housewife,” Richard Benjamin stars as a smug lawyer, the Alex Portnoy of the title, only he has no housewife to chide this time around. He’s a lecherous bachelor, and guilty about it. In the first scene, he mentally undresses a client, but in the next, he’s haunted by the image of his ex-girlfriend (Karen Black) flinging herself off a roof (as visualized repeatedly through the same clunky, pre-CGI effect). We know immediately that Black was likely The Only Woman That Understood Him.
In the first of several flashbacks about his Jewish guilt, we see little Portnoy defying his religious parents, playing Little League baseball on Rosh Hashana. Then, he describes his many afternoons spent “beating off into a Mounds wrapper” and pretending an apple core is a girl who calls him “Big Boy.” In the book, he describes this to a professional shrink; in the movie, he tells this to a female conquest, post-coitus. Improbably, she giggles in delight at the anecdote. (“You’re so creative!”)
The rest of the movie plays like a broken record, as Lehman establishes the pattern of Portnoy’s shifting states of mind: lust, hypochondria, lust, guilt. When he thinks, as a teenager, that the acne on his genitalia is cancerous, the fear only makes him hornier. His masturbation habit becomes so addictive that he sneaks off to the bathroom during dinner, lying to his folks that he has diarrhea; his clueless mother (Lee Grant, easily the Waspiest Jewish actress around) only yells at him because his constipated father is “jealous” of Portnoy’s gastrointestinal condition. He stretches his Mom’s bra on the bathroom door, trying to keep himself aroused as she hollers just outside the door. He loathes and worships his Mom at the same time. (As if the influence for this psycho-sexual humor wasn’t obvious enough, Portnoy actually describes one of his own statements later on as a “typical inference of an Orthodox Freudian.”)
Of course, with actual women, Portnoy is a train wreck. About to receive his first handjob–from a shiksa, of course–he imagines that he will contract syphilis and his parents will find his severed cock. The girl, infuriated at his impotence, counts to 50 for him to get an erection; when he fails to satisfy her, she calls him a “cheap bastard fairy Jew.” To score with women, Portnoy decides, he has to turn mean and atheistic. He carps at his mother for wanting him to be an obedient Jewish boy, marveling that he didn’t “turn out to be a fruitcake, living in some house on Fire Island with a guy in eye makeup named Sheldon; it’s a wonder I made it into the world of pussy at all.”
So when he meets Black (playing a voluptuous shiksa nicknamed “The Monkey”), he successfully woos her by immediately offering oral sex. Their sex life is so healthy that it fuels Portnoy’s first steady relationship, but he eventually derails it, through his snobbery (he makes light of her illiteracy) and his hypocrisy (while prudish about the provocative ways Black dresses, he’s totally forthright about inviting an Italian prostitute, while the couple is on vacation, into a menage a trois with Black.)
After his affair with Black disintegrates, Portnoy, racked with guilt, makes a pilgrimage to Israel, where he meets an Israeli hitchhiker (the late Jill Clayburgh, doing a truly awful Israeli accent). Finally, a “nice Jew girl” for Portnoy; but–oh, what symbolism!–she totally rebuffs him, after which he tries to rape her (some hero, huh?) but is thwarted by his own impotence. The film ends with a truly awful joke, like Mel Brooks at his worst: in a fantasy sequence, Portnoy talks to God–depicted, of course, as a big bright light with a booming basso voice–who sentences him to a lifetime of impotence. Yuk, yuk, yuk.
Roger Ebert, in his July 7, 1972 review, lambasted the movie for its crude ethnic stereotypes: “Jewishness was at the heart of Roth’s novel, but the movie has no heart and little apparent sympathy with its Jewish characters.” Bingo. Still, if you thought “American Pie” wasn’t uncomfortable/embarrassing enough; if you like a ton of outdated Jewish caricaturing thrown in with your gross-out comedy, “Portnoy’s Complaint” is the movie for you.
The movie was never released on DVD. Lehman, who died at age 89 in 2005, never directed another film. He is best known for contributing the scripts to “North by Northwest” and “The Sound of Music.”