Portnoy's Complaint (film)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Portnoy's Complaint is a 1972 comedy film written and directed by Ernest Lehman. His screenplay is based on the bestselling 1969 novel of the same name by Philip Roth.



The film focuses on the trials and tribulations of Alexander Portnoy, a Jewish man employed as the assistant commissioner of human opportunity for New York City.

During a session with his psychoanalyst, he explores his childhood, his relationship with his overbearing mother, his sexual fantasies and desires, his problems with women, and his obsession with his own religion. Via flashbacks, we learn about his affairs with Bubbles Girardi, the daughter of a local hoodlum; Israeli Naomi; and gentile Mary Jane Reid, whose nickname "Monkey" reflects her remarkable agility at achieving a variety of sexual positions. Mary Jane seemingly is the girl of Portnoy's dreams, but as their relationship deepens and she begins to pressure him into giving her a ring, he shrinks from making a permanent commitment to her.


Critical reception

In contrast to Goodbye, Columbus, which did well at the box office and was liked by critics, this second attempt at Roth bombed miserably. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called the film "a true fiasco" and added, "The movie has no heart and little apparent sympathy with its Jewish characters; it replaces Roth's cynical and carefully aimed satire with a bunch of offensive one-liners, and it uses the cover of a best seller to get away with ethnic libels that entirely lose their point out of Roth's specific context. And what's maybe even worse, it takes the most cherished of all Jewish stereotypes - the Jewish mother - and gets it wrong. The Sophie Portnoy of Roth's novel was at least a recognizable caricature. But the Mrs. Portnoy of the movie is simply a morass of frantic dialog, clumsily photographed. There's no person there at all."

Variety said, "It is a most effective, honest in context, necessarily strong and appropriately bawdy study in ruinous self-indulgence. Besides adapting the Philip Roth novel into a lucid, balanced and moral screenplay, and producing handsomely on various locations, Ernest Lehman makes an excellent directorial debut. Richard Benjamin heads an outstanding cast."

TV Guide rates the film one out of a possible four stars and comments, "Roth's novel was very funny and often shocking for its own sake, but the film, an embarrassment for everyone involved, fails miserably in adapting the book to the big screen . . . the production, done so slickly, does veil, to some degree, the horrible script and bad performances."

See also

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