Arcane symbolism? Not in the face of so much gross exaggeration and stereotyping...
Philip Roth's celebrated bestseller, a frank and overtly-rude novel of modern-day Jewish guilt and rage, comes to the screen somewhat neutered. Richard Benjamin plays the 33-year-old lawyer looking back on his boyhood in New Jersey, set in a stifling family house of Jewish repression, and later on his tumultuous affair with a shiksa fashion model. The themes of the book--the all-important mother figure (whose judge-and-jury persona shapes Portnoy's sex life) and the wanton craving for constant ejaculation--are touched upon here fleetingly; but Ernest Lehman, who adapted the script and directed, is too tasteful for raunch. He seems to have decided that simply satirizing Jewish conventions (in a familiar, cartoony way) would suffice instead. And so we get the standard arguments around the kitchen table, the squabbling about kosher diets, the meddling and prodding over sexual matters, and the inevitable battle between Jewish girls versus shiksas. This is all familiar territory by now, made even worse with the casting of Benjamin (didn't we cover much of this material with Benjamin in "Goodbye, Columbus"?). Karen Black gives the film's strongest performance as Portnoy's first serious girlfriend--she's flirty, sexy, and scary all at once--but there's perhaps too much of her. The entire midsection of the movie is devoted to Portnoy's putting up with her moods, and Black's "Monkey" is haphazardly written (she's a child-like waif who can't spell in one scene, and a bilingual, bisexual woman of the world in the next!). However, Black's serious stab at this screenplay is commendable, and she gets some good speeches when she isn't being derogatory (the script being an equal-opportunity insulter). Lee Grant tries, too, to make something of the thinly-conceived role of Mother Portnoy, though Jack Somack as her husband is much better suited to the scenario and upstages her. Jill Clayburgh turns up in a throwaway role (she fights against being humiliated, but doesn't appear to teach Portnoy anything in the process). With all this talent on-board, one might be inclined to give the picture a break (it was savaged by the critics in 1972); alas, it is a film that doesn't come close to accomplishing what it sets out to be: a comedic film about sexual frustration, release, and resolve. There are too many outré attempts at jokes without understanding the true root of the humor. ** from ****
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