Based on the notorious 1969 novel by Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint tells the story of a young Jewish boy, overwhelmed with hang-ups, who recounts his often hilarious and amorous adventures to his psychiatrist.
The book was truly shocking in its day, largely due to its unabashed depiction of young Portnoy’s sexual obsessions that results in his having an erotic encounter with a piece of liver (that later serves as the entree in the family dinner).
The notorious liver sequence is, fortunately, only described, not depicted.
The scenes of Portnoy’s obsession with masturbation as a teenager are cringe-inducing, as his family is subjected to his moans of pleasure from behind the bathroom door, although the scene in which an easy neighbourhood girl’s sexual encounter with young Portnoy results in his being blinded through emission of bodily fluids is rendered somewhat tame.
The rest of the film is a mish-mosh of foul language, abusive relationships and awkwardly filmed fantasy sequences in which Portnoy is called to account by God.
The film’s modest storyline did not stop Warner Brothers from providing a sizable budget with locations filmed in Greece, Italy and Israel (in the latter sequence, Portnoy has a disastrous encounter with a free-spirited Israeli woman.)
Curiously, the high budget didn’t preclude some of the worst rear screen projection sequences seen in this era.
Richard Benjamin plays the role of the neurotic Portnoy, but most of the performances are undermined by an absurd screenplay and the satirical spirit of the novel is left on the shelf.
Karen Black as Mary Jane gives one of the best performances of her career as the rough-around-the-edges woman of loose morals who pays tragically for her desire to want a fulfilling, loving relationship.
The most distasteful sequences are those of Portnoy in the company of his ageing, whining parents.
Jack Somack is convincing as the grumpy dad whose daily battle with constipation has turned him into an ogre.
However, Lee Grant is woefully miscast as the stereotypical Jewish mother.
Young Jill Clayburgh makes an impression as Naomi, the Israeli object of Portnoy’s perverted desire.
Mary Jane Reid (The Monkey)
Lewis J. Stadlen
Francesca De Sapio