Here’s a story of opposites attracting. Rafi (Uma Thurman) is a beautiful, professional photographer. Not a model, mind you, though she’s surrounded by them and so observes their vapidity, but an artist, single, self-aware, tasteful, and charming. Lisa (Meryl Streep) is married. She’s also fussy and judgmental, though not in her work as a therapist. She treats her clients with respect, sees a therapist herself when the need arises, and looks after her husband and children efficiently, if sometimes overbearingly.
Lisa is Rafi’s therapist. As Prime opens, Rafi is going through a rough patch, as she’s just “signed the papers” for her divorce after nine years of wondering why she was married. She worries that she feels “terrible” rather than relieved, but Lisa assures her that this is fine, healthy, and common, and adds that her ex’s bad behavior in the lawyers’ offices suggests he “sounds terrified.” Wise and soothing, Lisa occasionally sounds more like a girlfriend than the usual movie shrink, and this is, you think, a good thing, because Thurman and Streep will make for a terrific couple, however they work out their differences in perspective and need. Their work together — in Lisa’s cozy, home-based office and on screen — is initially nuanced and amusing.
Then comes the problem: Rafi meets a young man, David (Bryan Greenberg), aspiring artist and restless boychik, quietly resenting his mom’s interference and traipsing along after his best friend Morris (Jon Abrahams), who regularly “gets back” at girls who dump him (most often after the first date) by delivering cream pies — to their faces. David knows this is silly and mean, but he goes along because, well, because the movie needs a way to show that David is relatively more “mature” than his emotionally inept, goofily miserable buddy. “It makes me an accessory,” whines David. “It’s not funny.” He’s right.
Though Rafi is understandably moved by his cuteness (this after she laments, “There are officially no cute boys left”), she also intuits that something’s off, namely, his age. She’s 37, he’s 23, a difference that, in writer/director Ben Younger’s film, becomes monumental. At first, their dissimilarities seem mutually beneficial, as they educate, or at least entertain, one another: she likes jazz, he likes hip-hop (and he makes appropriate fun of her condescending first suggestion that he listen to Coltrane); she introduces him to quail egg sushi and the location of the clitoris, he shares with her his love of Rothko, and she appreciates his own art, recommending him to a gallery owner friend of hers.
Though they develop a social imbalance early on, whereby Rafi is instructing David and he’s adjusting to please her, their sexual relationship seems ideal. As her therapist reminds her, their both at their “sexual peaks,” at their ages, the match is potentially ideal. Rafi gushes that they do it often, in diverse positions and places — all over her apartment, since he’s still living with his grandparents (Naomi Aborn and John Rothman) in Brooklyn, and initially embarrassed to bring her home. (The weirdest running gag is the image accompanying his description of his Bubbie’s responses to his artistic inclinations or a black girlfriend: she whomps herself on the head with a frying pan.) Aside from the sex, which Rafi describes in some detail (as Lisa encourages her, noting that both are in their sexual “prime”), the relationship appears in charming bits of scenes, showcasing David’s disarming sense of humor and Rafi’s luminous energy.
As they begin to realize a gap between them, the film suggests that it’s only partly about age (and the dim Morris voices this concern, urging David to drop her because “she’s old, bro, she’s a time fighter” — that he calls his best friend “bro” is a whole other problem). Their hurdles take typical forms: he’s into video games, doesn’t have a job; she prefers to keep her cds and clothing in order, and eventually tires of paying his way, especially when he moves in and starts leaving the apartment in disarray. They’re also divided by cultural backgrounds (Jewish and Upper East Side nonbeliever), her wealthy friends out at the beach (especially the gay boys) think he’s adorable, but David feels uncomfortable and starts acting out. Rafi’s not crazy about Morris, either, which means their relationship remains insular, a little oasis amid their other lives.
Though overshadowed by the trite romance, the relationship between Lisa and Rafi remains the film’s more intriguing bond, even when it is disturbed by the very foreseeable (and almost immediately revealed) “twist” that David is Lisa’s son. When Lisa figures it out, she’s in the especially odd position of knowing that Rafi is discussing her son. At this point, the movie lurches into broad and much less interesting comedy. As Lisa strains to maintain her professional relationship with Rafi (whom she apparently genuinely likes), hoping against hope that the romance will be brief, she spends their sessions trying not to look appalled at Rafi’s elaborate descriptions of David’s penis. It’s so beautiful, she enthuses, “I want to knit it a hat.”
Lisa and Rafi’s different expectations, desires, and imaginations constitute a tension that is both familiar and remarkable, based in generational and cultural shifts and good-faith efforts to understand them. That the film has to build up the romance in order to complicate the women’s relationship is to its detriment (Streep’s mugging for the camera while listening to sex stories becomes increasingly unfunny). The limits of this joke don’t deter Prime from dogging it. The therapy sessions are increasingly spastic, and a near run-in at a Crate & Barrel has Lisa diving behind a bed with her perplexed and patient husband (John Rothman) as Rafi and David walk by blissfully arm-in-arm. When the predictable confrontations finally come around, the film has long since run out of energy. Pretending that David’s maturation has been its focus all along, Prime awkwardly loses sight of its more substantive relationship.