Prime

Inspired casting, with a superlative Meryl Streep and a charming Uma Thurman, elevates Ben Younger's “Prime,” a romantic comedy set in New York, dealing with a Jewish youngster dating an older Shiksa, an issue that's been on the news lately, due to the over-publicized Demi Moore-Ashton Kutcher's courtship. As such, it's a more successful film than “How Stella Got the Groove Back,” in which Angela Bassett dated a man who was her son's age.

“Prime” benefits from its cross-cultural currents, Jewish versus Gentile, which is not a new subject, having been explored by Woody Allen in his best comedies, including “Annie Hall.” Though vastly different in character and tone, Allen's work seems to have inspired Younger to put onscreen his own personal background and anxieties.

“Prime” represents a hybrid of a quintessentially New York film with an independent spirit but also glossy and star-driven. It could have easily been a small-budget indie, shot with a 16mm camera and cast with lesser-known actors. How one sees this hybrid, and whether it represents the mainstreaming of indies and broadening of its appeal, is a matter of personal interpretation.

Having given Younger's debut, the impressive “Boiler Room,” its very first review (in “Variety”) out of its premiere at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, I was eager to see his follow-up; sophomore efforts are often tough, particularly if they follow a brilliant first film, as “Boiler Room” was. It's too bad that it took this gifted filmmaker five years to make a second film, but, judging by the results, Younger fulfills the promise he had shown and continues to be a talent to watch.

That said, “Prime” is not as sharply observed or well directed as “The Boiler Room,” an energetic drama about Wall Street hustlers, starring Vin Diesel, Ben Affleck, and Giovanni Ribisi, that recalled David Mamet's “Glengarry Glen Ross.” A softer, kinder movie that dragsa bit in its pacing, it revolves around two strong women, as if compensating for neglecting the female gender in “Boiler Room.” However, in its modest, low-key mode, “Prime” is a charming, intermittently funny and witty comedy that's subtler than the current norm of comedies, paying greater attention to characterization than most comedies (and “Boiler Room” too, which is plot-driven).

Based on the premise of two mismatched lovers, and exploring the trials and tribulations that are involved in such a situation, the narrative is rather simple, perhaps too simple. Raffi (Uma Thurman at her loveliest and sexiest) is a 37-year-old photography producer, reeling from a recent divorce. In the first scene, she's talking to her Jewish therapist, Dr. Lisa Metzger (Meryl Streep), who's working to help Rafi overcome her fears of intimacy.

Dr. Metzger doesn't have to work too hard, or too long, because soon Rafi meets David (Bryan Greenberg, of TV's “One Tree Hill”), a 23-year-old college graduate and wannabe painter, who lives with his grandparents. Since the trailer reveals the central idea, it's no secret and it will not spoil the fun to say, that exactly at the film's midpoint, Dr. Metzger realizes that Rafi is dating no other than David, her only son. What's a professional therapist and Jewish mother to do

Cutting back and forth, we follow Rafi and David as they begin to contend with a 14-year-age gap, vastly different religious and cultural backgrounds, and the demands of David's mother, who's a modern and liberal therapist but a most conservative and traditional parent.

Walking a fine line between using sold stereotypes and contesting them, “Prime” is almost successful in bringing a fresh angle to the its Romeo and Juliet situation. On the plus side, the film offers a modern urban romance that candidly, if not freshly, explores the joys of falling head over heels for someone, and the struggles that inevitably follow.

At first, David and Rafi's blossoming relationship appears to be an ideal match, as each unexpectedly fulfills the other's needs. Reaching into the adult world by reaching for Rafi, David wants a serious, challenging relationship. Meanwhile, looking for recovery, having been shut down from the pain and turmoil of a nasty divorce, Rafi finds David's energy and freshness appealing.

Younger contests one stereotype that has prevailed in Jewish romantic comedies over the past half a century, in films like “Portnoy's Complaint” and most of Woody Allen's comedies, which shows Jewish men as insecure, selfish, or poor lovers. In sharp contrast, David is handsome, sexually potent and great in bed. And unlike Woody Allen's nebbish schlemiels, David never asks Rafi how good he was in bed after each and every intercourse.

Streep handles extremely well the scenes in which Rafi confides in her tales of David's sexual prowess. No mother, particularly Jewish, is comfy to hear stories about their son's sexual lives—unless they are French mothers, like the one Isabelle Huppert recently played in “Ma Mere” (“My Mother”), who encouraged her son and even watched him making love!

As is often the case, the first reel, in which the characters and situations are introduced, is strong, before the comedy settles into a series of rather familiar confrontations, Dr. Metzger and Rafi, Rafi and David, David and his mother, David and his buddy Morris. We go through the motions of observing whether Rafi and David can love each other passionately and still be on the same playing field Or how do the differences in experience affect their abilities to relate to each other and to the significant people around them.

In the central chapters, Younger presents a number of obstacles to the romance, without which there's no movie. Hence, despite the intense attraction, the charmed couple soon realizes that vastly different ages and backgrounds do create conflicts. A Jewish hip-hop lover and closeted painter, initially, David has little in common with Rafi, a non-practicing Catholic from a wealthy, broken family, who travels in the sophisticated, high-end world of fashion. Their attempts to bridge this gap generate most of the film's humor and heartbreak.

At its heart, “Prime” is a love story about all the seemingly “irrelevant” forces but love–age, experience, culture, and religion–which shape the fate of modern relationships. And the movie is also effective as a coming-of-age, at the center of which is David's significant transformation from boyhood to manhood, learning what he wants and assuming the courage to do it.

Younger should be commended for not overdoing and milking easy laughs out of the therapy sessions, by now a staple in all Jewish comedies. Streep relates to her part as Dr. Metzger as an opportunity to flex her comedic muscles. She doesn't play the part for laughs, as Streisand would have done two decades ago. Instead, Streep enacts in a realistic yet humorous way the dilemma of resolving two conflicting intentions: trying to do what's right for her patient and trying to do what's right for her son. Clearly, Dr. Metzger is a woman caught between two worlds, and Streep really mines the comic elements from her conundrum, creating a compelling portrait of an anguished mother forced to cede control of her son's life.

“Prime” suffers from two minor problems. The film's weakest character is Morris (Jon Abrahams), whose specialty is dumping pies on the faces of women who reject him. The second problem is stereotypically Jewish portrayal (the only one in the film) of David's loving grandparents, Dinah and John Bloomberg (Naomi Aborn and John Rothman), which is reflected in their dialect, habits, and mannerisms.

One of my favorite vignettes, done in slapstick style, is the flashback scene in which David tells Rafi about the reaction of his great grandmother when he brought to her house his date, a gorgeous black woman. Ill let you guess what she does

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