Writer/director Ben Younger has some talent but not so much originality. His first feature, Boiler Room, was a clever spin on Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, better-written and more lifelike than its predecessor (though, really, how could it not be?) but nearly as formulaic. Now he’s gone back further in film history — much, much further, back to 1928 — and concocted Prime, a contemporary take on Abie’s Irish Rose, a hoary chestnut about the clash of religion and culture that occurs when a nice Jewish boy falls in love with a cute shiksa. Or, to look at more recent films, one could compare it to almost every Woody Allen movie ever made, except that for Allen a Jewish man’s adoration of beautiful Gentile women is a given, not an issue; the issue with Allen is that as he gets older, his love interests stay the same age. Here the complication is the opposite: This nice Jewish boy (something nobody, except possibly his mother, ever accused Woody Allen of being) falls in love with a woman 13 years his senior. Since the woman in question is played by Uma Thurman, I trust that you will understand.
The nice Jewish boy, David Bloomberg, is played by Bryan Greenberg, whom you may have seen in The Perfect Score or on TV in “One Tree Hill” or “Unscripted,” but I won’t hold it against you if you haven’t. This was my first exposure to Greenberg, and I found him handsome, amiable, and unmannered, but he doesn’t command the screen like his more famous co-stars. Along with Thurman, he has to contend with Meryl Streep, who plays her therapist — and his mother. (Ideally, you shouldn’t know that fact going in, but as the film’s marketing has, inevitably, given away this twist, there’s little point in my trying to keep it quiet. When I saw the film a couple of months ago at the Boston Film Festival, the PR machine hadn’t really gotten cranking yet, so most of the audience was unaware of this little twist, and they gasped audibly at the reveal.) Streep’s character, Lisa Metzger, is a contradiction — both a modern woman and a throwback: a supportive, open-minded, sex-positive therapist and a stereotypically smothering, tradition-obsessed Jewish mother. She’s Dr. Ruth and Linda Richman all swaddled into one lumpy cardigan.
Lisa is the film’s most complex, lifelike character, an acknowledgement of the conflicting prigs and libertines that dwell in most of us. When she realizes that her patient is dating her son, she’s torn between her professional obligations and natural affection for Rafi (Thurman) and her protective maternal instincts — this relationship may be just the trick to get Rafi out of a post-divorce funk, but it hardly seems ideal for David, who still has some growing up to do and besides must must marry a nice Jewish girl. Streep’s scenes are played for comedy, and they work that way — they’re often very funny — but she makes Lisa’s inner turmoil real.
Less real is the predictable relationship between Rafi and David, who meet by chance through a mutual friend, experience an immediate physical attraction, have a few really cute dates, find out that they’re a perfect couple, and then find out that they’re completely incompatible. The usual romantic-comedy complications pop up, abetted by the differences in age, religion, and lifestyle. Contrasts are drawn between Lisa’s stuffy Upper West Side apartment; David’s run-down place on the Lower East Side, which he shares with his grandparents; and Rafi’s elegant Fifth Avenue co-op. Like Allen, Younger uses Manhattan as a character in his film, using locations not just to set moods but to convey information about the lives of the three central characters. Individual elements of the film work well; Younger’s dialogue is full of witty and almost-witty banter, and the leads have interesting chemistry.
This is all pleasant enough, but it doesn’t amount to as much as it could. Younger builds empathy with David and Rafi in the early scenes, but the film’s second half undercuts our feelings for them, introducing all — and I do mean all — the usual romantic-comedy relationship obstacles in an arrhythmic litany. The film’s editing, which is solid in the early scenes, becomes disjointed and confusing; one gets the impression that certain scenes were cut for time or possibly intended to play in a different order. David’s grandparents move away to Florida and then suddenly pop up at a family dinner a few sequences later with no explanation. Dozens of brief scenes go by, cut short before we can process them, taking us through too many new complications and near-reconciliations.
Younger seems to feel that we can’t believe Rafi and David’s relationship is breaking apart unless we see a thousand reasons why, but some of the complications are completely unconnected to what we’ve previously understood about the characters. The problem is that he’s painted himself into a corner — by making their bond so unrealistically strong and frictionless in the beginning, which isn’t believable anyway, he’s set up a situation in which he apparently thinks he has to go to the opposite extreme. If Younger had begun the relationship more realistically, if he hadn’t tried so hard to convince us initially that the differences between Rafi and David weren’t all in the heads of small-minded, old-fashioned people, the movie could have worked. He could have kept things simpler in the later scenes and allowed them to build, instead of just firing them off at us one after the other.
Despite its flaws, Prime does say something interesting — even promising — about Ben Younger. It’s difficult to imagine a picture more unlike Boiler Room, with its excess testosterone, its casual misogyny and racism. Younger, surprisingly, writes for women at least as well as he does men, and he’s not locked into a certain type of film. Though Prime is derivative, and it doesn’t all hang together, it’s still better and smarter than the average romantic comedy — give me Ben Younger over Nora Ephron any day. The performances are uniformly good, the comic bits mostly work, and the film does ultimately acknowledge some difficult truths about romantic entanglements. Younger never deliberately condescends to the audience; one gets the impression that he’s just seen more movies than he’s experienced life. As he’s still in his early 30s, this is neither shocking nor difficult to remedy. It should be very interesting to see what he’ll do next.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Prime / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()