Surely Ben Younger’s Prime is of limited use if you’re looking for insight into relationships, age-disparate or otherwise. It’s painted in broad brush-strokes, in ways that don’t always make sense; its allegiance is just as often to a sight-gag or clever montage as to verisimilitude. Ultimately, the way the events of the plot play out isn’t just unlikely, it’s damn near absurd. Meryl Streep or no Meryl Streep, Prime is about as tapped into reality as Must Love Dogs.
Given that, the fact that Prime is a much better film than Must Love Dogs must be due to something else. That something else, I think, is the screenplay. This is Ben Younger’s follow up to Boiler Room, which met with some acclaim in 2000 and was one of my favorite films of the year; a different type of film, yes, but also one with an uncommonly sharp ear for dialogue, cutting out dreary exposition in favor of terse, tight writing that conveyed a lot, efficiently.
Here, too, even as I watched the plot spin into fantasy land, I was amazed by the unostentatious intelligence of these characters, appreciative of how they found ways to talk about trite topics without sounding stupid or oblivious. The story, concerning a beautiful, recently divorced 37 year-old woman (Uma Thurman) falling for an extremely bright, predictably immature 23 year-old (Bryan Greenberg) who also happens to be the son of her trusted therapist (Streep), often takes on a gee-whiz naivete, but it always remains a little idiosyncratic, a little smarter than the average wide-release romantic comedy. It is to Younger’s credit that he has adopted the useful conventions of the genre without letting the familiar formulas distort his own sensibilities beyond recognition.
Consider the crucial scene were Thurman’s marvelously named Rafi discovers the age of her date. She doesn’t dance around the issue. “Let me ask you a question,” she says casually. “How old are you?” David is more than happy to dance around it, but she presses on, and the next words out of her mouth after he says “twenty-three” are “oh my God, you’re a child.” Brilliant: Simple, direct, funny, unmelodramatic. Consider, too, the first kiss: listen to what they say, and how they say it. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but you can feel the uncertainty in their words and in their voices, and the scene just works.
Against this we have the elements of broad comedy, mostly in the scenes involving Rafi’s descriptions of her and David’s sexual escapades to her therapist, who has by now discovered, much to her horror, that this middle-aged woman is dating her son (worse: she’s not Jewish). Younger is smart enough to mostly let Meryl Streep loose here, and her various contortions as Rafi relates useful tidbits such as her desire to knit a hat for David’s penis are priceless. Younger shows a bit of a knack for mild situation comedy in these scenes, too; I love when she follows up with “Is he neat?”
Having conceded that Prime fails most any “significance test” to which you might think to put it, I can only claim that it is loose, winsome and intelligent enough to keep me gratefully engaged as it built to a touching, not entirely expected finale. Uma Thurman is radiant and just pitch-perfectly cast, Streep is having fun, and while Bryan Greenberg won’t win any critics’ awards, he looks the part and carries it surprisingly well. Prime is the kind of film that will be widely referred to as “cute,” but this is the rare case where “cute” does not translate to “insulting.”