This is partly about the movie Prime, and partly about other things like depression, unhappiness, therapy, and young men dating older women.
Prime has been treating with surprising kindness by many critics, but the mean score at the Metacritics site was 58. Ebert liked it because it had some good scenes and tried to say something, although he agreed it was flawed. A movie with Meryl Streep and Uma Thurman, with Uma emoting about relationships, is going to have a safe core audience, and a fan following. It isn’t doing terribly well at the box office though. I thought Ebert had a point about the movie’s having some good scenes, but he understated the flaws.
Uma Thurman plays Rafi, a 37 year old, recently divorced woman, with no kids, and a good job connected to fashion and photography. She is in therapy. It isn’t clear if she has been in therapy for years, or just since she separated from her husband. There is a short reference alcohol in her family of origin, a hint that she has overcome some childhood issues, but she doesn’t seem to have been particularly wounded by that part of her past. She is sad, lonely, and vulnerable. She has powerful emotions – she would like less bad, more good – more affection, intimacy, love, happiness. Iit’s hard to write or portray a character like this without falling into banality. Thurman skillfully plays Rafi as a genuinely confused woman, trying to live out the conventional vision of a woman’s life as fulfilled by career, friends, possessions, relationships and emotional attachments. The demands of the role bring her to the edge of parody. Rafi comes off as confused and needy, a nice girl trying to explain her real feelings in the cultural clichés of selfishness. “This is real”. “He gives me what I need.”
Her therapist, Lisa, played by Meryl Streep, is a dowdy middle-aged Jewish woman. Her therapeutic approach seems to be Hollywood stock Freudian analysis. In the early stages, before the big plot gag is sprung, she tries to act the part of the wise older girl-friend, more of an enabler than a listener. She nods and smiles, she supports Rafi’s decisions. Streep is hamstrung by bad writing. Lisa is seen by her son as unsophisticated – she lives a sitcom version of Jewish urban domesticity. This may set up some of the other gags in the plot, but it makes her character seem superficial.
Rafi meets Lisa’s 23 year old son David (Bryan Greenberg), dates him on whim, and starts a sexual relationship. This leads to into a bedroom farce kind of the plot, as Lisa figures out that the fling that she has been endorsing is with her own son. The fact that Rafi isn’t Jewish becomes a factor. Lisa’s character descends into Jewish mother steretypes and Streep is reduced to Henny Youngman schtick. This contrived plot line unfortunately overwhelms one of the better parts of the movie. As the movie develops, we see that Rafi need Lisa more than she needs David. Much of her life is superficial. Her peers aren’t that nice and many of her female co-workers are untrustworthy and selfish. Lisa is solid and real. Rafi needs to know an older woman, to experience support and trust.
For her, that is the value of therapy. She isn’t mentally ill. Her sadness and loneliness don’t paralyze her. But she isn’t happy and she can’t seem to find the engagement and friends and social supports she needs to avoid feelings of sadness. She can’t see through to the reality of her situation. She is an affluent, healthy, independent woman caught up with longing for a happiness she can’t have as long as she is caught up in longing. Unfortunately, the therapy never comes to terms with existential issues.
The romantic plot fails. Thurman and Greenberg tear each other’s clothes off frequently and enthusiastically (alas Thurman fans, no nudity) but it’s hard to see this going past a one-night stand. Greenberg plays David as a handsome kid, caught up in hanging with his buddies, playing dumb pranks. He is vaguely alienated from his parents because they don’t support his ambition to be an artist – although he shows no passion or desire for the work. The fact that she might sleep with him a few times, as an experiment, because she is lonely and horny, is credible. Her invitation to let him stay with her is vaguely plausible. The survival of any relationship after a few days of cohabitation is contrived. David turns out to be quite an overgrown child – posturing and selfish. Few real 37 year old women would have the bad judgment to keep this relationship going.
Again, it’s a pity things worked out this way. Part of her allure for young David is her sophistication, and part his allure is his freshness and enthusiasm for life. If the characters had been written differently, we might have seen if David could “grow” or “mature” or be trained into becoming a good companion for an urbane older woman. Much of the tension in a romantic relationship is negotiating the balance between care for another person and controlling the other person. Women want control, although there are penalties for being too domineering or manipulative. Men want to reserve control of large parts of their autonomy, and there are cultural penalties for being controlled by women. A relationship between an older woman and a younger man is quite unequal in terms of sophistication and social skills. Women manage their lovers and their sons. Sex and adult intimacy are part of the game with lovers, not with sons, but many other parts of the power game are similiar. Do men want to sleep with their mothers, as Freud theorized? Or do men fear and resist older women who try to manage and control them, in spite of the incentives of sexual favours and intimacy?