Charles Panofsky has been working as a doorman for a luxury apartment building for many years. But after a day full of many slights and insults, he snaps after an altercation on the subway with an obnoxious wealthy couple.
He’s hauled in by the police, who interrogates him about his behavior. And as Charles relays the story of his incident to both the cops and the film’s viewers, he reveals the depths of a long-building discontent, as well as the widening of the gulf between powerful and powerless.
Directed by Peter Mackie from a script he co-wrote with Jacqueline Berkman, this short comedy is on the bitter, astringent side, with a sharp, satirical eye for human pettiness while exploring the gulf between the haves and have-nots of one of America’s wealthiest cities.
The film exists within a subset of films made by and about disgruntled New Yorkers, portraying the nitty-gritty, hard-scrabble existence of a group of people jostling for space and resources on a small, crowded island. New York is a place where the combat often starts on the verbal level and the wit cuts sharp, and films in this vein foreground the importance of voice, both in the characters and in the storytelling.
The writing here succeeds admirably on these terms: voluble, tough and grizzled, Charles sounds and thinks very much like a New Yorker, and his dialogue and cleverly constructed perspective is one of the strengths of the film, along with a committed performance by actor Mark Beltzman in the lead role. His sometimes outrageous choices as a character are played for humor, but while he is often hilarious in his sarcasm and grumpiness, the film also has a moral clarity to make clear that what happens to him is not funny at all.
The film also hearkens back in some ways to the 1970s, when Hollywood filmmakers applied the freewheeling techniques of European art cinema to the stories, backdrops and concerns of American storytelling. There’s a richly grandiose orchestral score that underlies much of the film, which offers an often ironic note to the narrative as it proceeds, especially as Panofsky’s irritation and bitterness come to the fore after the pressures of a bad day.
His bad day isn’t just one annoyance after another, however. It’s when he faces outright hostility and has his socioeconomic status thrown in his face that he stands up for himself — though whether or not it leads to any justice remains in question.
“Panofsky’s Complaint” obviously riffs on the famous Philip Roth novel “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which itself was a monologue whose linear structure unfurls to reveal the larger social context itself. Though confined to a much narrower narrative scope, the film’s central incident reveals who has power and who doesn’t, and what ugly prejudices still underlie the surface of so-called civilization. Even with his quirks and peccadilloes, Panofsky emerges as an Everyman in a world where people like him scrabble under the feet of the richer and more powerful, in a system stacked against him.