Despite a comic <I>Yiddishe</I> mama turn by Meryl Streep and a sensitively nuanced perf by Uma Thurman in a convincing changeup from her recent kickass action roles, "Prime" remains an oddly juiceless older woman-younger man romance, with a Freudian twist.

Despite a comic Yiddishe mama turn by Meryl Streep and a sensitively nuanced perf by Uma Thurman in a convincing changeup from her recent kickass action roles, “Prime” remains an oddly juiceless older woman-younger man romance, with a Freudian twist. Lead actresses acquit themselves swimmingly, generating believable chemistry and plenty of estrogen, with boychik Bryan Greenberg also passing muster. But secondary characters, drearily one-dimensional, die on the vine in a slick but cliche script by writer-director Ben Younger (“Boiler Room”) that narratively hedges its bets. Even for femme auds, “Prime,” skedded to open Oct. 28, rates a cut below grade A.

Rafi (Thurman) has just terminated a loveless nine-year marriage and is dependent on her shrink, Lisa Metzger (Streep), for friendship and support. That support is seriously threatened when Rafi starts dating and sleeping with David (Greenberg), who happens to be Metzger’s son (a fact Metzger discovers but which is unknown to everyone else).

Rafi wrestles with the problems inherent in a relationship with a much younger man, from his adolescent reluctance to clean the apartment when he moves in to his occasional preference for Nintendo over sex. Meanwhile, would-be artist David, who lived with his grandparents and was discouraged from taking his painting seriously, strives to hide the full extent of his immaturity from his stylish, sophisticated paramour.

Metzger, the most conflicted character, finds her genuine affection for Rafi to be jeopardized — Metzger’s liberal, laissez-faire acceptance of her patient’s sexuality turns out to be at odds with her motherly fear of shiksas and need to control her son.

The Modern Romantic Comedy has become more elusive than the Great American Novel these days, and, in his updated spin, helmer-scribe Younger has baited viewers with one too many hooks. The course of true love is doubly roughed by the fact that the lovers are not only separated by age (she is a gorgeous-looking 37, he a hunky-but-sensitive 23) but religion as well. Streep’s rather broad interpretation of the “Jewish mother,” with its fine comic flourishes, would play beautifully except for the fact that she’s surrounded by a family of flat, joyless caricatures that sap the ethnic juices out of the whole religious “dilemma.”

Thurman, on her side, exists in an equally one-note milieu of rich gay men friends, snooty in-people and sterile open spaces (stark, vast art galleries or studio haute couture shoots) that generally signal WASPdom as the absence of local color. Only Annie Parisse, as one of Thurman’s svelte, fashion industry friends, manages to breathe life into her severely limited sidekick role.

The same cannot be said of David’s boyhood chum Morris (John Abrahams) who, in lieu of a personality, is granted a propensity to anoint ex-girlfriends with custard pies in a running gag that gets less and less funny. Greenberg, a relative unknown, actually succeeds in essaying the difficult, seemingly oxymoronic role of sexy mama’s boy David.

But film’s main focus is the relationship between the two gals, as Streep and Thurman’s obvious enjoyment in playing off each other enhances their double entendre-laden psychiatric sessions. Rafi’s ingenuous, wonderfully delivered concerns about robbing the cradle and confidences about her young lover’s sexual prowess are received by Dr. Metzger with nicely mingled therapeutic encouragement and maternal horror. At the same time, the frumpified, Joy Behar-esque Streep and the blond, willowy, va-va-voom-y Thurman rep two separate aspects of the same woman, the matriarchal and sexual sides comically dialoguing at cross-purposes.

Unfortunately, Younger’s decision to foreground his stars against an underwritten, poorly thesped sea of mediocrity serves not to empower their portrayals but to strand them. Even pic’s relatively lucid denouement is sabotaged by Younger’s need to validate all his characters’ possible choices: The helmer appears as loath to endorse May-December romances or mixed-religious pairings as he is to criticize them.

Tech credits are impressively polished, particularly in pic’s understated use of Gotham locations, nicely textured in William Rexer’s lensing. Ryan Shore’s score and Jim Black’s music selections, however, are often annoyingly intrusive.

Prime

Production

A Universal release of a Universal Pictures, Stratus Film Co. presentation of a Team Todd/Younger Than You production. Produced by Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd. Executive producers, Mark Gordon, Bob Yari. Co-producers, Brad Jenkel, Anthony Katagas. Directed, written by Ben Younger.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), William Rexer; editor, Kristina Boden; music, Ryan Shore; music supervisor, Jim Black; production designer, Mark Ricker; art director, Paul Kelly; set decorator, Carol Silverman; costume designer, Melissa Toth; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Tod A. Maitland; supervising sound editor, Paul P. Soucek; assistant director, Michael Lerman; casting, Ellen Lewis. Reviewed at Loews Kips Bay, New York, Oct. 11, 2005. (In Mill Valley Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Lisa Metzger - Meryl Streep Rafi Gardet - Uma Thurman David Bloomberg - Bryan Greenberg Morris - Jon Abrahams Randall - Zak Orth Katherine - Annie Parisse
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