There are two things left for Philip Roth to face, as he wittily notes at the start of this adoring documentary: death and a biography. William Karel and Livia Manera’s installment of PBS’s American Masters series—which is being presented at Film Forum in anticipation of its subject’s 80th birthday—barely fulfills the latter requirement. The history of the man who gave the literary world such alternately acclaimed and vilified works as Portnoy’s Complaint,Sabbath’s Theater and I Married a Communist is continuously glossed over. (His tumultuous, he said–she said marriage to actor Claire Bloom is never even mentioned.) And the majority of the talking heads—everyone from Mia Farrow to Jonathan Franzen—have nothing but kind words to say, lending the proceedings more than a whiff of hagiography.
Fortunately, Roth himself proves to be a fascinating presence—soft-spoken, sharp and bearing a vague air of melancholy that offsets the surrounding adulation. Mostly he talks about the nitty-gritty of his process: his simultaneous love and fear of solitude, the way he writes standing up, his mental evolution from first to final draft. And he offers some stimulating, clear-eyed insights into his work, while emphasizing the necessity for an artist to forge ahead despite myriad distractions. Ultimately, the film is less of an unmasking of Roth than it is an enigmatic guru’s rousing master class. You leave a little bit wiser about yourself.
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