Ben Younger's "Prime" has to have one of the most appealing comedic premises in a long time; when I first heard about it, I had the feeling I'd been waiting for it. The story sets up one of the most squirm-inducing triangles ever committed to film: Thirty-seven-year-old Rafi Gardet (Uma Thurman) has just gone through a painful divorce, throughout which she has relied on the support and encouragement of her therapist, Lisa Metzger (Meryl Streep). When Rafi meets a cute 23-year-old painter named Dave Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg), she is charmed but hesitant to get involved. Ever supportive, Lisa urges Rafi to have fun while it lasts -- until she discovers that the lad in question is her own son. Lisa must decide whether to continue treating the fragile Rafi, on the chance that the affair will play itself out, or come clean about what she knows.
Despite the snappy brilliance of the setup, "Prime" doesn't entirely deliver on its promise -- something about the way it ends feels like a cop-out, and the opportunities for humor aren't exploited quite as well as they could be. Part of the problem is that more time is spent on the sweet but otherwise unexciting romance between Rafi and Dave than on the excruciating relationship between Rafi and Lisa -- clearly the more interesting dynamic. "Prime" does offer a clever and cheerful sendup of the limits of the therapeutic relationship, not to mention its unrealistic double-standards, without ever sliding into mean- spirited histrionics a la "Monster-in-Law." But it might have delved a little deeper into the feelings that arise between Rafi and the woman she has turned into her surrogate mother -- a mother whose support and admiration, it turns out, are more hypothetical than heartfelt.
As a therapist, Lisa encourages Rafi to "live for the now, for now," even though her patient has made it clear she's worried about things like having a baby. When it comes to her much-younger son, however, Lisa is hardly so free-to-be-you-and-me. A controlling Jewish mother hen, she endlessly lectures Dave on the importance of marrying within his faith and not entering into relationships he knows he can't commit to.
This is an interesting question, but it feels slightly beside the point. You get the sense that Lisa's real problem with the relationship is slightly less lofty and that she doesn't quite have the guts to admit to her own prejudices. Streep plays the stereotype to the hilt, fanning herself in distress and attacking a pastrami sandwich as though it were the transubstantiated hussy that's corrupting her son. And Thurman's role, in some ways, is equally thankless. Rafi looks gorgeous, lives well and gets to enjoy herself for a while, but she can never quite shake an air of embarrassment over the way things have turned out. She looks diminished, almost apologetic at times, though to look at her is to feel that she's earned the right not to have to apologize for her life. Demi was never this demure.
In some of the movie's most poignant scenes -- which are also some of its best -- Rafi tries gamely to regain Lisa's love not as a patient but as a potential member of the family. Lisa's clear inability to make the shift is painful to watch, and it subtly throws the value of her work into question. It's especially poignant as Rafi reminds Lisa that her family represents the kind of family she herself never had; a fact of which Lisa would have been aware. Streep's comedic timing is perfect, but her character comes off as too unself-aware and unsympathetic to be entirely convincing as the therapist Rafi loved.
Greenberg is handsome and charming as the romantic muffin who may or may not know what he's getting into, and the movie presents their relationship in a realistic, not at all caricatured light. But aside from a few riffs on sloppiness and Nintendo addiction, the movie leaves the little disconnects inherent in any 14-year span lying around untouched. Aside from one scene in which Dave reveals that he hasn't heard of John Coltrane -- not exactly Rafi's contemporary, anyway -- the issue of cultural referents as both time markers and identity shapers is left sadly unexplored. It's a missed opportunity, given that these days it's impossible for any thirtysomething not to be reminded of his or her age when the Smiths are being piped as comforting nostalgia through the speakers at Whole Foods.
At times, the movie feels like a tribute to "Annie Hall" -- a movie Rafi would have likely seen before Dave was born, but the subject of movies and TV shows never comes up. (Nothing says "you're old" like talking to someone who was born after "Alf.") It's this kind of thing that's missing from "Prime" -- the kind of thing that wouldn't even cross your mind if its premise weren't so deliciously good, and didn't leave you wanting more.
MPAA rating: PG-13
Times guidelines: Some explicit language and sexual themes
A Universal Pictures release. Written and directed by Ben Younger. Executive producers Mark Gordon, Bob Yari. Produced by Suzanne Todd and Jennifer Todd. Director of photography William Rexer. Edited by Kristina Boden. Production designer Mark Ricker. Costume designer Melissa Toth. Music Ryan Shore. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.