Meryl has made a lot more great movies than she has bad ones. For every Kramer Vs. Kramer and The Hours, there’s only the occasional movie like The House of the Spirits. In 2007 she had a string of bad films—Rendition probably being the worst—and her Oscar-winning The Iron Lady has its haters. Arguably the most forgettable movie she’s made in her long list of credits, though, is the 2005 comedy Prime. Here is a film with a decent premise and two strong female leads that starts off okay but then goes nowhere. More than maybe any project she’s appeared in, Prime has the feeling of something she did for a paycheck, or because she had a free chunk of time and wanted to work. This is not to say that the movie is a boring, joyless experience. It’s totally watchable, with a few moments of genuine tension and a couple funny Meryl moments. As a whole, though, the film just doesn’t add up to much.
Prime, which remains one of the few projects Meryl has headlined that received not a single award nomination of any kind, blends comedy, drama, and romance in a story of missed connections and ironies that Woody Allen probably could have done more with. Uma Thurman, fresh off her performance in Kill Bill (and taking over a role that Sandra Bullock dropped out of when the director refused to make script changes) plays Rafi, a career woman who’s been unlucky in love. She meets regularly with a psychoanalyst Lisa (Meryl), who is the person Rafi feels most comfortable discussing her sexual escapades with. She meets a cute younger man David (Bryan Greenberg) at a film event, and the two begin dating. Even though she is thirty-seven and he is twenty-three (both prime numbers! a coincidence?), they connect in a genuine way and he soon moves into her apartment. Rafi shares every intimate detail of David with her psychoanalyst Lisa, but here’s the catch: Lisa is David’s mother! What will happen when Lisa finds out that Rafi’s dating her son? Will their relationship continue? Will Rafi and David be able to stay together? Do we care?
The best scenes in the movie are the therapy sessions, when the camera is locked off and allows us to observe Thurman and Meryl playing off each other. There are at least five of these scenes, and it’s during these moments that the narrative comes to life, especially once Lisa knows her patient is dating her son. But when these two aren’t sharing the same frame together, the movie suffers. Ben Younger wrote and directed Prime, his second theatrical film, and to date his last theatrical film. His first movie Boiler Room was a top-notch corporate thriller with Giovanni Ribisi riveting in the lead role, Vin Diesel before The Fast and the Furious, and Ben Affleck in a memorably villainous supporting turn. Prime is of a different genre and style, and it just doesn’t suit him. He says in the behind-the-scenes DVD documentary that the story was inspired by real life circumstances; maybe he should have gone deeper into his imagination, to pull out something more original. While the Meet Cute between David and Rafi in the beginning is effective, their relationship, especially the growing amount of bickering, soon becomes tiresome, and it’s only the fleeting moments of Meryl in the second half that gives the film any life.
One of the main problems with the movie is Bryan Greenberg, an actor with little charisma. While he is pretty to look at, and would be at home in an ensemble on, say, a CBS TV series, he lacks the star power necessary to carry a whole film. He tries to hold his own with Thurman and Meryl, and while he doesn’t give a bad performance, he never pops off the screen. There’s no chemistry between him and Thurman (their kissing scenes are so intense it’s weird to think what Sandra Bullock in Thurman’s role would have been like), and he often looks lost in the scenes he shares with Meryl, like he was doing everything in his power to not blow his lines in front of an acting icon.
The film is predictable and calculated all the way through, with an ending that the director might have thought of as daring, when in reality it can be seen a mile away. The movie lacks energy, in a story that very much needs it. There’s too much emphasis on quickly cut flashbacks. The title is weird, even the poster is bland. There’s nothing in Prime one hasn’t seen before, so it’s difficult to see what attracted Meryl to the project. In the behind-the-scenes documentary, she says that the script made her laugh. That’s as good a reason as any, I guess, but one would hope she has a bit higher standards for the projects she commits to be in, especially at this point in her career. Of course, she would shoot The Devil Wears Prada less than a year later, and all is right with the world.
The story of Prime had the makings of an interesting comedy romance, but it got boggled in the process, with the wrong storyteller, a miscast male lead, and a tone that never strikes the right balance. Meryl creates an amusing character, a psychoanalyst with bushy brown hair and a no-nonsense voice who has neuroses all her own. Her facial expressions as Rafi talks about David’s perfect penis get some laughs, and a sitcom-y moment when Lisa pulls her husband down to the ground in a furniture store is entertaining. Meryl does the best that she can with a script that is often more tired than inspired. In the end, Prime is proof that even the finest of actors can’t save every movie they’re in, even when they have the best of intentions.