Success creates demand for repeat performances, hence this Philip Roth adaptation starring Richard Benjamin, a follow-up to the well-received Goodbye, Columbus (1969), which had the same actor/source material combo. Portnoy’s Complaint did not fare well, as represented by the fact that the picture began and ended the directorial career of Ernest Lehman, one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed screenwriters. Whereas Goodbye, Columbus leavened its harshest elements with tenderness, Portnoy’s Complaint is unremittingly loud and vulgar. The film is not without its virtues, thanks partly to the psychosexual preoccupations of the source material and partly to the skill of the actors on display, but the picture is as fake and mean-spirited as Goodbye, Columbus is authentic and humane.
Benjamin plays Alexander Portnoy, a horny civil servant who becomes involved with uninhibited fashion model Mary Jane Reid (Karen Black). Not only is she a Gentile, fulfilling one of self-hating Jew Alexander’s deepest fantasies, but she’s also nicknamed “Monkey” because of her agility in bed. The nearly illiterate Mary Jane is a plaything for Alexander, who gets to feel superior while lecturing her about culture and virile while driving her wild during sex. Yet the more she pushes for a real relationship, the more he cuts at her self-image with sarcasm. Revealing that Alexander eventually drives Mary Jane to suicide doesn’t spoil Portnoy’s Complaint, because the movie is built around a therapy session during which Alexander explores his guilt over the way he treated Mary Jane. He also works through his relationship with his oppressive mother, Sophie (Lee Grant), as well as his addiction to masturbation.
One must admire Lehman’s commitment to presenting Alexander so unflinchingly—and since Jack Nicholson got away with playing men like this many times, the no-prisoners approach had precedents. Yet very little in Portnoy’s Complaint works. The movie is fast and slick, but it’s neither erotic nor illuminating. Instead, it comes across like a misguided morality tale wrapped inside a dirty joke. Still, Portnoy’s Complaint features a wild array of acting styles. Black has a few supple moments before slipping into harpy mode; the hopelessly miscast Grant plays for the cheap seats; Jill Clayburgh lends fire to a small part as a woman invulnerable to Alexander’s charms; and Jeannie Berlin, best of all, lends humor and pathos to the role of a bedraggled woman whose encounter with Alexander goes awry.
Portnoy’s Complaint: FUNKY