New Philip Roth documentary doesn't quite 'unmask' him

The new documentary 'Philip Roth: Unmasked' is an insightful look into the famed writer's life, but it doesn't quite go the distance.

"Philip Roth: Unmasked" will air March 27 on PBS. Photo: Simon and Schuster

By all accounts, “Philip Roth: Unmasked,” is a wide-ranging and insightful documentary that celebrates the great writer and shines a spotlight on his distinguished career, with one major flaw: there’s very little actual “unmasking.”

The 90-minute film, which is timed to coincide with the author’s 80th  birthday (March 19), will enjoy a weeklong theatrical premiere at the Film Forum in New York (March 13 to 19) before airing nationally March 29 on PBS stations as part of the “American Masters” series.

The film explores the life and work of the Pulitzer Prize-winning, two-time National Book Award winner from his Newark, N.J. childhood to his controversial, often sexually explicit psychoanalytical novels, to his “current status as literary eminence and perennial Nobel candidate,” according to the AP.

In it, Roth friends and admirers reflect on the seminal novelist with reverence (though, it’s been said, not complete candor). Among them are the novelists Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Franzen, and friends Mia Farrow and Martin Garbus. Perhaps the most shining presence is Roth himself, who, for the first time, allowed the film’s crew to spend 10 days interviewing him on camera, both in New York and at his home in rural Connecticut.

The result is a vivid portrait of the novelist at his best: frank, forthright, feisty, funny. But, as many reviews have observed, it stops there. The film falls short of plumbing the more delicate and debated parts of Roth’s life and work (like his rocky relationships with women and his retirement) and ultimately fails to live up to its title.

As the New York Times writes, “He is, for 90 minutes, marvelous company – expansive, funny, generous and candid…Though not unduly self-revealing … those interested in Mr. Roth’s relationships with women will have to await Blake Bailey’s authorized biography or else succumb to the irresponsible, irresistible vice of treating novels as source material.”

As the Hollywood Reporter points out, “..Roth himself won't go down that road to compare himself to his major characters, nor does anyone else venture into his private life, as if it had been placed off-limits as a condition of the interview being granted.”

Apart from that, the film’s other major glaring omission is that it leaves out all mention of Roth’s most high-profile announcement to date – his decision to retire from writing.

As the AP points out, not only does the film omit that major milestone, it depicts Roth as an active writer who declares he’d be miserable if he stopped writing.

“I keep doing it. I never quit,” he says. “My worst times are when I’m not writing. I’m prone then to be unhappy, depressed, anxious, and so on.”

In fact, the prolific novelist, who’s written some 39 books, almost one per year, told a French magazine late last year that’s he’s finished. In subsequent media reports, he has said he’s happy to be done.

“Someone should have told me about this earlier,” he jokingly told the Television Critics Association in January, regarding his retirement.

(According to news reports, the film’s producer knew about Roth’s decision to retire, but didn’t imagine “it would be such big news” and doesn’t actually believe he’s given up writing for good.)

All in all, most reviews agree “Unmasked” is a delightful and insightful look at a great American writer’s life and work – just not quite “unmasked.”

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