- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2005

New York-based writer-director Ben Younger, 27, set aside an unfinished script for “Prime” before making a successful debut five years ago with “Boiler Room,” a satire about a cutthroat brokerage business. That project’s idiomatic zing looks like a fortunate fluke by the time “Prime” expires on what was probably meant to be a rueful note reminiscent of the “Annie Hall” fadeout.

His first and second movies have an obvious element in common — New York Jewish family backdrops for somewhat wayward young men — but the largely masculine camaraderie and sarcasm of “Boiler Room” suits him better than the halfhearted matchmaking of “Prime.”

Uma Thurman plays the slow-on-the-uptake heroine, Rafi, a 37-year-old divorcee who appears to work as a Girl Friday on fashion shoots. Her best friend and confidante is her psychoanalyst, Lisa, a Jewish homebody shrink played by Meryl Streep.

Lisa’s office is located next to her Manhattan apartment, on the same floor — an arrangement designed to abet farcical comings and goings once the characters are entangled in the Big Secret leaked to the audience early on.

By chance, Rafi meets an aspiring painter named David (Bryan Greenberg) and falls for him despite a certain embarrassment about the age difference. He’s 23. When first informing Lisa of her new beau, Rafi fibs a bit and says he’s 27.

From roughly this revelation on, the question of sexual and emotional compatibility is subordinated to a suspense element that could only be salvaged by a ruthlessly farcical and prurient approach.

We know that David the suitor is also the mildly prodigal son of Lisa the therapist. An invisible hour glass measures the countdown while Rafi, David and Lisa remain oblivious to all they have in common.

Lisa is permitted to get wise first, during a session in which Rafi shares more accurate information about her new lover. This seems only fair, given the film’s overdependence on stale jokes about Jewish mothers and upbringings. Unfortunately, Miss Streep doesn’t rescue it with genuinely funny ways of fuming and agonizing over the personal and professional repercussions.

The filmmaker adds another level of blundering by shifting his ground; it becomes uncertain whether he wants an age difference to jeopardize the love affair or a religious difference.

You begin to suspect that when dusting off the script, Mr. Younger remained so indecisive that he couldn’t sweep out the cobwebs and sort out the alternatives. The characters share his muddle. It’s as if we were all expected to be generous about a feeble misapprehension gimmick. “Prime” fails to earn the benefit of the doubt. It miscalculates, and persists in squeezing its miscalculations dry.

* 1/2

TITLE: “Prime”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Ben Younger. Cinematography by William Rexer. Production design by Mark Ricker. Costume design by Melissa Toth. Music by Ryan Shore

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

WEB SITE: www.primemovie.net

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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