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Rafi Gardet: You let me talk to you about his penis?
Romantic comedies have been a maligned genre for years; "chick flick" and "date movie" have become dreaded labels. Yet in 2005 we've seen a lot of interesting entries in the category. First Curtis Hanson (the gritty L.A. Confidential) directed In Her Shoes, and now Ben Younger of testosterone-fueled Boiler Room fame offers us Prime. Why are the bad boys of Hollywood clamoring to make romantic comedies all of a sudden? Before long I fear Quentin Tarantino is going to conjure up a sequel to Hope Floats. Whatever the reason, guys are eager to enter the feminine fray, and at least they are cranking out unpredictable, interesting films. Prime didn't make a huge dent at the box office, but surprisingly it's well worth checking out on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Uma Thurman (Kill Bill: Vol. 1) plays Rafi, a thirty-seven year old divorcee who is trying to reenter the dating scene. She's in therapy with a doctor (Meryl Streep, The Manchurian Candidate) who encourages her to get out there and allow things to get messy. Unfortunately, Rafi finds the perfect mess by meeting a twenty-three year old aspiring painter (Bryan Greenberg, One Tree Hill) named David. He's young and Jewish, so the relationship faces obstacles from the get-go. But her shrink is all for it—until she figures out Rafi is dating her son. Suddenly the doctor has an ethical dilemma, but decides to keep treating her patient. Will Rafi be able to survive not only dating a younger man of another faith, but also finding out his mom knows her better than herself?
First, let's talk about dating from the perspective of genders. Men never seem to have a problem dating women far younger than their age, but for women it's always been taboo, and remains so despite Demi Moore snagging Ashton Kutcher. Women seem to mature more quickly than men, and there is a problem when a woman who knows who she is tries to date a guy who is still finding out who he is. I don't think it's about age as much as it is about self-awareness, but it can break a relationship. Let's face it, guys are immature wankers well past twenty-five. (Some are their entire lives.) So the idea of a younger man and an older woman presents a more natural problem than the reverse scenario.
Not only does Prime explore the age difference, but it throws in the conflict of a Jewish boy with a faithfully devout family dating a woman who is not a very committed Christian. Faith and culture issues are a land mine in any relationship where the two conflict. Half of my family is Jewish, and there was such an uproar when my cousin decided to marry a Christian who was not interested in converting. Matzo balls were lobbed over hams on one particularly fateful Thanksgiving when the announcement was made. It can be a real corker, so it's an interesting subject to approach.
Prime starts off conventionally for a romantic comedy, then comes dangerously close to sitcom-land, but retains a bubbling, sexy intelligence that saves it from the usual traps. The initial twist—that Rafi is dating her doctor's son—was spoiled by every trailer shown for the movie, and unfortunately the film was mis-marketed as a silly farce, when it's really trying to be a meditation on the nature of love and discovery. Credit must be given to the three leads, who make Prime far more interesting than a typical romantic comedy. Uma Thurman is physically striking, and plays Rafi as a cool, together woman who's coming out of a bad place. Meryl Streep plays her role for laughs, but can't help giving Lisa the therapist a fully realized personality. She takes even the funniest, broadest moments, and backs them up with her trademark believability. Bryan Greenburg has the daunting task of acting opposite Streep and making out with Uma. He does come off exceptionally well by turning in a simple, honest performance. But the strongest point of the film is that it never goes anywhere we can't believe, other than the idea a psychologist would try to treat someone who is dating a member of her family. Besides that glaring leap of logic, Rafi and David's relationship feels real every step of the way. As a director and writer, Younger refuses to make things precious or too convenient for the couple to surmount the issues. The movie never takes the easy way out. You've got a thoughtful cast turning in fine performances, a smart script that allows reality to happen, and a zippy pace which mines the comedy and drama in equal doses.
What makes Prime a good film is that it takes us on a journey. The characters evolve from the experience with Rafi learning to live in the now, Dave growing up, and Lisa questioning her own issues as a therapist who can't follow her own advice. Love is all about learning and growing, and this movie understands this better than most romantic comedies. It's not quite up to Woody Allen's Annie Hall or Manhattan, but it almost gets there. Perhaps if it hadn't relied on a gimmick like the therapy sessions it could have been more powerful, but then we wouldn't have much of a comedic conflict to hang the plot on. The advantage the movie has with a male director and screenwriter is that for once the guy is written as well as the female characters. He's well meaning, but still has guy issues, like being addicted to video games, not being good at cleaning up, and being not too bright about what's appropriate to say.
The extras are engaging, and nicely done. There's an amiable commentary track with director/writer Younger, who is joined by his long-time producer Suzanne Todd. The two talk about the film in the way two old friends would. Included are outtakes and deleted scenes, which let us see the lighter side of the set. Also in the mix is a brief look behind the scenes, which is substantial enough to keep it from feeling fluffy. Menus are visually groovy and easy to navigate. Universal has given the film a lot of support for a DVD release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Technically, Prime is solid enough visually, but seems to get a little off in the sound mix department. The anamorphic widescreen transfer looks fine. Colors are saturated, grain is minimal, and only a couple of scenes appear to have black levels that are a little murky. The one glaring problem comes from the five-channel surround mix, which thumps out the music at a punishing level in comparison to the dialogue. Bass is extremely heavy, and it really throbs inappropriately whenever a hip-hop influenced track comes on. None of this damages the clarity of the dialogue, but it may make you jump in your chair when Prime moves from quiet dialogue to a party scene.
The only problem I have with Prime is the fact Meryl Streep's character continues treating her patient after learning she is dating her son. It's unethical, and something psychologists would not allow. Luckily, we do get a rationalization, with the doctor figuring out it may just be a fling, and holding her tongue until she's sure. That's still rather flimsy, and it undermines the plot. For a smart movie, it relies on idiotic premises to get moving. You still could have had a cute movie had the therapist held up her hand the second she realizes what is happening, and handed Rafi a referral card.
Prime is a great little movie you probably missed in the theatrical release. It seemed to come and go without fanfare, but it's worth a look on DVD. Despite relying on a gimmicky plot device, there are beautiful scenes of emotional dialogue that ring true. Nice to see Uma Thurman doing something other than kicking ass and taking names, and its always nice to see Meryl Streep balancing comedy with her immaculate acting. The best news is the relationship presented here feels real, and I love that the movie refuses to get too cute or saccharine.
Guilty of being another good romantic comedy. I'm going to have to reconsider my position on the genre thanks to Prime. It makes a perfect date movie, because it understands guys as much as it does women.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Writer/Director Ben Younger and Producer Jennifer Todd
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