IN THAT ferocious and self-annihilating way," wrote Phillip Roth in the voice of Alex Portnoy, "in which so many Jewish men of his generation served their families, my father served my mother, my sister Hannah but particularly me. Where he had been imprisoned, I would fly: that was his dream."
The conditions of his birth made Father Portnoy beleaguered and constipated in a Gentile world. In his discursive flight from his own beleaguerment Alex began to compensate for Father's restricted state with a vengence: he because frantically effusive and unbelievably potent.
As in most Freudian melodramas, Mama is the culprit: lapping, pawing, hugging, and not much comfort to a young Portnoy, seeing outside the Jewish womb, beyond the intellectual, cultural and religious worlds of his parents. Alex wanders like a Jew.
And kvetches like one. He tells the psychiartist who listens almost silently to Alex's monologue:
"Doctor, do you understand what I was up against? My wang was all I really had that I could call my own. You should have watched (my mother) at work during pollio season! She should have gotten medals from the March of Dimes! Open your mouth. Why is your throat red? Do you have a headache you're not telling me about? You're not going to any baseball game. Alex, until I see you move your neck. Is your neck stiff? Then why are you moving that way? ...
"Look, am I exaggerating to think it's practically miraculous that I'm ambulatory? ...It's a family joke that when I was a tiny child I turned from the window out of which I was watching a snow storm, and hopefully asked, 'Momma, do we believe in winter?"
"Do you get what I'm saying? I was raised by Hottentots and Zulus! I couldn't even contemplate drinking a glass of milk without giving serious offense to God Almighty. Imagine then what my conscience gave me for all that jerking off!"
Sadly, Ernest Lehman's mishmash movie of Portnoy's Complaint, which opened June 27 in Boston, gives offense to no-one.
Not that it doesn't try. Scenes are lifted from the book, hung on the Hollywood sets, trimmed in language, and left to dry. Example: Benjamin and the Monkey (Karen Black), Portony's Gentile juicer brought to life, lie in bed after sex, and Benjamin virtually lists Portnoy's scatological memories. But nothing happens visually in the scene, except for Benjamin's lips moving in a glib monologue.
Nothing gets gritty in the film except the language, and then most of the grit has been taken out. Roth's book made the sex explicit and the characterizations vague, often openly begging a personal response from the reader. Lehman's movie does the reverse, making the characterizations explicit and the sex removed. The sets are overit and uninteresting. And little of the Jewish ambience is evoked visually; being Jewish to Lehman means the mother wearing a mezzuzah, being Gentile means a Catholic hooker wearing a cross.
PERHAPS THE main reason why the narrative voice of Roth's Portnoy often worked so well is because Alex consciously impersonates familiar faces. Like Portnoy's mother, who laughed hysterically when he limitated characters from a radio show, we can see people we know filtered through the consciousness of a fellow sufferer. Lehman's version surveys the scene with as much distance from Alex as from anyone. Alex's guilty conscience has been excised, so that not only don't we see the others as Portnoy does, but we don't see alex either. Aside from Portnoy's voice-over now and then, about the only thing indicating that this is the visualization of a monologue is that Dick Benjamin looks alike as both the older and younger Portnoy. But it might have been an overnight, not an insight.
I'd like to think the movie's lack of insight is due mainly to the special difficulty of transferring this novel into film. The filmmakers make this difficult to believe. Michael Legrand's score comes on like Muzak's version of the Exodus theme, matching the subtlety of Lehman's own technique. Lehman rivals that other Catskill whizkid, Otto Preminger, and gives us so many establishing shots that he all but draws a map for us. If I little more optimistic about TV situation drama, I'd say that this movie was made for it.
Most damaging of all is Lehman's dirty little mind. The book began with Portnoy explaining his mother's influence as well as her ubiquity: "She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise." The movie begins with Benjamin listening to Some Young Thing in his office as he mentally strips her: Portnoy not as mother-flustered, but as girl-hungry.
LEE GRANTS Mrs. Portnoy is definitely TV, with sprayed hair, straight nose, facile mannerisms. Karen Black as the Monkey manages to convey sexual elasticity but is pretty hommed in by the rest of the film, as is Jack Somack who as the father has a great constipated look.
The movie is constipated, but doesn't look so great. Lehman simplifies so much throughout that we'd hardly have known without checking that Roth was hitting middle-class as well as Jewish. Once or twice Lehman films something so outrageous that it manages original humor (the congregation tossing their yarmulkes into the air, applauding Alex in a bar mitzvah fantasy sequence). But most of the outrage is collected and muffled in the dialogue.
If Lehman was going to make it a film for the ears, he could at least have been faithful to the book. Roth's Portnoy eventually loses and gains inhibitions in Israel: he loses paranoia in the Homeland where everything is Jewish ("I am playing in a sea full of Jews! Look at their Jewish limbs moving through the Jewish water!") but he also loses his potency. Internal restrictions replace imagined outer ones. And kvetching gets you nowhere.
As in the rest of the movie, Lehman forgets to establish the background, instead of just the geography: no "Jewish limbs! Jewish water!" scene. It might as well be Miami Beach. A few reassuring shots to put things--and characters--back together, and everything's all right.
After all, for God's sake, Portnoy's Complaint is something you can take your mother to.