I'm not sure what's sadder: the fact that it seems highly unlikely that Uma Thurman will ever be given the opportunity to top her work in the Kill Bill films, or that, until Quentin Tarantino put her in a track suit and taught her how to decapitate mobster/geishas, she never seemed to matter much in the first place. Uma – always Uma, never Thurman, because by god, a name like that only exists to demand first-name basis – never showed much promise when it came to "acting". In fact, in most of her films, she seems to set forth her lines in a tenor of panic, as though, which each new statement, she's finding it harder to hide the fact that she doesn't actually understand the words.
Not that it matters – like any of the really good stars, there is a kind of alchemy to the way her features arrange themselves on screen. When Uma Thurman is shot from the right distance, with the correct lens, her flat deliveries and wandering tones of voice become, if not believeable, then a nuisance that it doesn't seem difficult to ignore. That girl – those features, that brain – this is where the combination of the big screen TV and the mute button find their ideal simultaneous application. We're bound to come full circle back to pure cinema eventually, and with that in mind, Uma Thurman really is ahead of her time. Some day, not too long from now, you'll be able to sit in your seat in a public theater and be able to control the experience just as though you were sitting at home on the couch with a beer between your knees; for Uma, unfortunately, that day will probably come too late.
Prime, directed by Ben Younger from his own screenplay, doesn't deviate from the Uma playbook, although from her first, against-type appearance within its frames – tear stained cheeks, dank ponytail, eyes lined with as much baggage as they're ever going to see – it holds out false hope. She plays a 37 year-old recent divorcee who finds something like love with a scrappy stud of a painter (Bryan Greenberg) – who happens to be both her therapist's son, and her junior by fourteen years. If it sounds like it's an improbable lot for one relationship to handle, that's only because it is. Younger may be on to something here: he actually writes his film out of any one genre categorization by throwing his characters, over and over again, at the brick wall of genre cliche. That's actually an assesment of some generosity; it's pretty clear that whatever Younger is on to, it's a lucky accident when it comes across. Prime actually bears every mark of an auteur work gone wrong, a personal film muddled up by meddling and money that has forgotten what it wants to be.
The implausibilities start to pile upright off the bat. David and Rafi (Thurman) meet at a double feature of Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point (note to readers: if you ever stumble opon a theater showing prints of both of these films in the same night ... well, you'll be a lot more fortunate than I've ever been). Dr. Lisa figures out right away that her patient is dating her son, but continues treating her anyway ... for months. All the while, Rafi doesn't suspect a thing - even though David's school portrait from what looks like about eleventh grade is sitting in his mother's office. Infidelities are quickly brushed off, but white deceptions break deals. Most alarmingly, in one vignette of cloying cuteness, David arranges for he and Rafi to eat takeout by candlelight in front of Rafi's favorite Mark Rothko painting. How David manages to get his grubby, 23-year-old hands on a masterwork of contemporary art goes unexplained. If scenes like this are actually happening in gallery basements across Manhattan, then I'm definitely dating the wrong guys.
Meryl Streep gets top billing here, which is strange. She steals every scene she's in, but that's only possible because they don't belong to her to begin with. Prime is obviously meant at its core to be a portrait of Rafi and David's love affair, an Annie Hall-lite about a very New York-specific kind of romance. It's unfortunate, then, that Streep's character arc is the truly compelling one. It's a different film when Meryl is around, a more confident and surprising one, and it isn't just because most of her costars evaporate off the frame when she appears. Streep is such a consummate professional that she manages to sell the story's conflicts almost single-handedly. Even when forced to sacrifice her character's motivations to the spectacle of broad comedy – and it doesn't get much broader than a sixty year-old, impossibly coifed mental health professional diving under a bed at Crate and Barrel – she comes off as someone who believes they're in a situation that could really happen.
Still, this is, without a doubt, a Meet the Parents move for Meryl. Unlike the star of that film, Streep gets nominated for an Oscar every time she makes a serious pictue; what she does have in common with Robert DeNiro is that neither actor has actually won a major acting award since the early 80s. Does Streep's career need a jolt as badly as DeNiro's did (and, once again, does)? Probably not, but it's nice to see this veteran of Angels in America and Sophie's Choice subtly send-up a very veklempt Upper West Side anti-yenta.
On the job, Dr. Lisa is the kind of enabling force that a woman like Rafi – semi-professionally beautiful, but broken by divorce – really needs to fulfill her own desires. Before she figures out that the hard young thing her patient is riding is actually her own son, Lisa declares that she "unequivally" supports Rafi's right to rob the cradle. But over Friday night dinner, opon learning that David has fallen for a shiksa of the ripe old age of 27 (interestingly, it's David's lie and not Rafi's), a different woman comes out. David accuses his mother of holding her family to stricter standards than she would a patient, and he's right, but it's more complicated than that. There's something potentially fascinating about the idea that Lisa is of a kind of cultural/generational moment which would allow her to professionally condone – even recommend – the same relationship that soon becomes her private, personal disaster. Streep was born in 1949, which makes her about the same age as my parents; I see in her Lisa the same kind of struggle between 60s personal politics and post-War traditionalism that I've seen, at various points, in them. Streep has no problem merging these Big Issues into subtly nuanced small ones. Even a 30 second scene in which she laughs about her own inherited prejudices – over pastrami on rye, natch – seems to function on multiple levels in Streep's hands.
Too bad the rest of the film isn't as tasty as that sandwich. Though it's been marketed as a sex farce, Prime only has a small handful of laugh-out-loud lines (most of them belonging to David's sidekick Morris, a sociopathic nerd with an obsession over highly symbolic cream pies). Neither Greenberg nor Streep get any good punchlines, and though Thurman does, she throws them all away. I laughed hardest when laughing *at* her. There's a line about an orgasm that's clearly suppossed to be a show stopper; it would be generous to simply say that, in Thurman's hands, it's not. More problematically, like far too many films in current release (The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Where the Truth Lies are the examples that immediately come to mind), Prime seems to operate on TV Time; everything runs smoothly for about 53 minutes, but then the premise wears out its welcome and the narrative runs out of steam. Once Lisa and Rafi stop seeing one another on a professional level, Prime seems to lose most of its urgency – in fact, it's almost like a whole second film starts to emerge. The cultural tension Streep brought into the procedings is discarded for oatmealy relationship drama – and Rafi and David's relationship is only worth following if we're doing so through Streep's discombobulated genius.
But for as long as it lasts, Streep finds a worthy opponent in the actor who plays her son. Greenberg, a WB contract player (he plays a teenage father on One Tree Hill) aquits himself nicely in his first major starring role. Whereas Thurman's character seems to have a vocabulary made up entirely of Things People Say in Movies, Greenberg's David seems to say many things that I've heard men say in real life. There's a nice scene, towards the end of the film, where David informs his family, "This is what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life." David ostensibly means "painting", but Greenberg adds just enough of a quiver to the line so that you know he's also talking about being with Rafi – and, that he doesn't quite believe in the permanence of either activity. The camera absolutely adores the chiseled Greenberg, and Thurman does her most convincing work when drooling over him. The sex scenes are, for the most part, terribly earnest but well choreographed, and Thurman seems to come into her own only when dancing these dances. It's another case of her face and body conspiring against her brain. When Thurman is asked to simply feel and react, she's pitch perfect. But the problem of her line readings is not one easily surmounted. She's probably the only living actress that would turn out better work as a deaf mute.
It's tempting to look at Prime and explain away its failings, to jump to the conclusion that it is, in fact, really two, seperate, good films – each with good scripts, good actors, and above all, good intentions – two films wrestled out of a director's hands and combined by one evil-minded studio head in the name of frugality. And if that's true, then I have to call it a success. But I'm fairly sure that Prime is, in fact, just one film, albeit one that seems to be of several incompatible minds. It's a mediocre effort, but one made with, above all, good intentions. Younger obviously has a lot of drive in him; I'm interested in where it might take him next.