The Grapes of Roth

03/13/2013 4:00 AM |

Philip Roth: Unmasked
Directed by William Karel and Livia Manera

This doting bio-doc, profiling one of American literature’s most polarizing figures, seeks to debunk several received notions about its subject—that he’s an over-psychoanalyzed horn-dog; that his singular brand of Jewishness is little more than a provocative composite of stereotypes; that he must be the progeny of an overbearing mother—while also anointing Roth the heir apparent to the likes of Joyce, Kafka and Céline. But in refusing to engage with many of the most salient criticisms of Roth’s work, filmmakers Livia Manera and William Karel have mistakenly appointed him a master beyond reproach. Simply put, this uncomplicated analysis of a profoundly complicated man often feels more immoral than any of the kink described in Portnoy’s Complaint.

It shouldn’t surprise anybody that Philip Roth: Unmasked is primarily concerned with glorifying the recently retired novelist. (It is, after all, the upcoming episode of PBS’s uniformly reverential “American Masters” series.) Talking head after talking head—Jonathan Franzen, Nicole Krauss, Mia Farrow, etc.—spews hot air about the significance of his place in the history of international letters. (“To speak of Roth is to speak of…”) But Roth’s most persuasive advocate proves to be… himself: the extended interview that provides most of the movie’s substance reveals him to be genuinely funny and, yes, self-deprecating—a far cry from the Mailer-esque macho man many presume the author of American Pastoral to be.

Other choice moments include extended shots of Roth at work (a southpaw, he writes longhand while standing up) and countless opportunities to admire his wildly bushy eyebrows (a stray one of which dangles in front of his left eye throughout, undoubtedly a manifestation of his much-discussed id). At one point, Roth declares that “shame isn’t for writers.” Truth be told, the same could be said of portraiture as monotonously devotional as this.

Opens March 13