With glossy celebrities making age-incongruous couples en vogue, a movie exploring “The Graduate”-esque relationships could not come at a better time. While “Prime,” from writer/director Ben Younger (“Boiler Room”), is not as good as its name suggests, it nonetheless manages to explore, albeit superficially, these themes in a highly inventive and comedic setup.
In one of the most uncomfortable but tantalizing love-triangles ever to grace the silver screen, 37-year-old Rafi Gardet (a charming and radiant Uma Thurman) has just gone through a painful divorce with the help and support of therapist Lisa Metzgen (Meryl Streep). When Rafi expresses her reluctance to get involved with 23-year-old Dave Bloomberg (simple and adorable Bryan Greenberg) whom she meets one evening at an Antonioni double feature, the always supportive Lisa encourages her to have fun while it lasts and to “live for the now.”
Until Lisa realizes — in an epiphany scene constructed almost as artfully as those of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” — that the 23-year-old in question is her own son.
Unfortunately for all parties involved, Rafi proceeds to tell Lisa intimate details about her relationship that no mother would want to know about her son — and that no son would want his mother to know about him. And although these scenes with Streep and Thurman are the most entertaining in the film, as the relationship between the two women is undoubtedly more dynamic than the one between Rafi and Dave, even this humor is somewhat strained at times.
But it seems that this sense of contrivance is due, in large part, to Younger’s superficial writing. Even for a romantic comedy, the dialogue is remarkably feeble. The unassuming and casual chemistry between Thurman and Greenberg, which could have been much stronger, is cheapened by their stale conversations. Only Streep manages to somehow deliver her lines naturally, but such skill cannot be expected from her younger co-stars.
In addition to failing to fully exploit the film’s potential humor, Younger also doesn’t thoroughly explore the obstacles that such a difference in age creates in a relationship. Aside from Rafi’s surprise that Dave has never heard of John Coltrane (who is also before her time), the film largely ignores the issue of cultural referents and how they shape an individual’s character. One would expect there to be a greater disconnect between two people who grew up in such different times. But when Thurman doesn’t look much over 25 anyway, Rafi and Dave’s difference in years is not as hard to swallow as it might otherwise be.
Instead, Dave’s Jewish background and his mother’s desire for him to marry within his faith become the largest obstacles to his and Rafi’s relationship. And Lisa’s controlling mother-hen syndrome with her own son, in all her pushiness and intolerance, does not quite coincide with the openness she encourages with her patients. Seeing Lisa’s prejudicial and unsympathetic nature makes it difficult to believe she is the therapist Rafi had come to love so much.
“Prime” also half-heartedly tries to delve into socioeconomic discrepancies and their effect on Rafi and Dave’s relationship. Rafi is a successful career woman with an expansive apartment in Manhattan. Dave, on the other hand, tries to make ends meet with a construction job, but is actually a highly prosaic struggling artist who cannot believe in his own exceptional talent because his family does not consider painting a “real” job. And to make his situation even more pathetic, he lives with his grandparents. But in the end, this attempt to explore another detriment to Rafi and Dave is eclipsed by issues of religion.
Despite Younger’s many attempts to give his film substance, it fails to offer any real insight into the nature of relationships. Rafi and Dave are fraught with all of the same cliches as those in any other romantic comedy. And while the film had the potential to shed some light on older-woman-younger-man relationships, the unoriginal ending leaves the audience largely unsatisfied.
But at least the film offers Streep doing her best impression of the stereotypical Yiddish mama, with large, garish jewelry and an affinity for pastrami on rye. So although “Prime” is a rather Matzos-thin film, if approached like any other romantic comedy — that is, with low expectations — the few laughs it offers might just be worth the schlep.