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« Oscar Myth-Busting: The Academy Doesn't Like Popular Films | Main | Queer Roundup at GAZE International Film Festival »
Thursday
Aug092018

Months of Meryl: Prime (2005)

John and Matthew are watching every single live-action film starring Meryl Streep. 

Meryl Streep as therapist with Uma Thurman as her client in Prime (2005)

#32 — Lisa Metzger, an Upper West Side therapist whose client begins dating her much younger son.

JOHN: The most depressing thing about Prime is that director Ben Younger reportedly spent eight years writing it. Equally depressing is the sight of Meryl Streep, Actress of Her Generation, wasting her time on this insipid project, and the subsequent dearth of roles for actresses over fifty that her involvement signifies. Here’s a fun kernel for a comedy skit: a kooky, Upper West Side therapist learns that the 37-year-old woman she is treating has begun dating her 23-year-old son, ensuing comic hijinks, oversharing, and ethical quandaries between therapist, son, and client. Now, imagine that idea stretched out for nearly two hours, sans comedy or romance, and you’d have Prime, easily one of the worst movies in Streep’s filmography...

Prime is shot and edited so wonkily it almost qualifies as experimental; numerous cuts confound expectations of even basic film grammar. Take, for instance, the indelible montage of Rafi (Uma Thurman) and David’s (Bryan Greenberg) early intimacy, in which Thurman asks Greenberg, “You’ve never heard of Coltrane?” “Is this that Negro music?” he jokingly responds, and seconds later they are inexplicably making out. This is followed by Thurman in a Japanese restaurant salivating over quail eggs; “They’re known to be an aphrodisiac,” she claims, and before you know it, these two are at it again! Prime is so estranged from reality that it begins to resemble The Room, but it at least provides the sight of Meryl Streep sporting a WNYC tote bag while shopping at her local farmers market.

 

Such small treasures are, however, few and far between. Streep’s Dr. Lisa Metzger mostly plays second fiddle to Rafi and David as they fall in and out of love, move in together, and navigate their generational gap. Bespectacled, her hair short and curly, and sporting large, clunky necklaces, Streep is working hard from her very first shot to sell this woman as an overtly comic presence. Her accent work begins as someone from New Jersey but that quickly disappears, and instead Streep speaks as though she is impersonating a woman she heard on line at Zabar’s. As Thurman’s therapist, Streep is a soothing and often warm presence, doling out relationship advice while trying hard not to react to Thurman’s candid admissions. But this is only half of Streep’s Lisa; the other is a domineering and devout Jewish mother who chides and nags her son with Olympian vigor. These two sides of Lisa’s personality rarely coalesce into something resembling a person.

Though it enlivens the material considerably, Streep’s performance remains merely the fulcrum of the plot’s central joke. You spend half the time watching her and the other wondering what possessed her to enlist her services. The actress’ pivotal scene, in which Lisa realizes that the young man Rafi has been describing is actually her son David, is perhaps her finest moment and the very reason why Streep took on the role. Nervously pouring and drinking cups of water, barely attempting to hide her aghast response when Rafi describes David’s “perfect penis,” Streep is genuinely funny for a few minutes, as broad and high-pitched as the rest of her performance, except that in this scene her theatrics fit the moment.

Do you see anything different? Why would Streep do this? Is there anything else to salvage from this trainwreck?


MATTHEW:  Since the majority of Lisa’s scenes are seemingly set within a three-block radius somewhere above West 72nd Street, Prime would appear to be one of those conveniently-located projects that Streep can knock off in a mere matter of weeks, which might explain but does not excuse her participation in this fiasco.

Greenberg is a hunky blank slate, while Thurman, replacing the originally attached Sandra Bullock (who smartly departed over script issues), has no obvious feel for comedy. Even more egregious is that Younger’s lunkheaded vision of New York multiculturalism features some of the most jaw-droppingly inane depictions of black people I’ve ever seen, from the anonymous, unseen-in-the-flesh women that David, an aspiring artist, paints in his exploitative portraits of Real New Yorkers to Rafi’s doorman (Ato Essandoh), who scowls in silence when David condescends to him with a fist-bump early on before deciding, at the romantic climax, that he just wants to see these two awful white people end up together after all. This is a film oblivious to its privilege, brought to life by a filmmaker who assumes that putting his Caucasian leads in the occasional presence of people of color and other minorities will excuse all the racist, sexist, and homophobic garbage that is casually spouted from beginning to end.

What, then, is the star of Silkwood and The Bridges of Madison County  doing in such dire company? The character is written as a stereotype of the finicky Jewish mama and subsequently played as one by Streep, who, with her elongated vowels and endlessly gesticulative hands, is not so much working from a predetermined process as simply riffing on a caricature of a human being. (I’ve seen this performance speculatively described, in some corners, as Streep’s revenge on her loudest skeptic, Pauline Kael, but to what end?)

As an actor’s director, Younger is no Mike Nichols or a Jonathan Demme, but he’s even miles away from being a Jerry Zaks or a Brad Silberling. He, unsurprisingly, gives Streep carte blanche to fill her frames as she pleases; Streep responds by rearranging her body and rolling her shoulders without end to add some — any — animation to the therapy sessions that comprise more than half of the performance, and scratching, biting, and wiggling during the humdrum dialogues where Lisa is off the clock. Younger shows us close-up after close-up of Lisa rummaging through her mind, but there are no discernible thoughts made readable to the viewer.

You noted above that Streep makes an immodest and fitfully funny exhibition of her discomfort during a tell-all therapy session. When the discussion ends, Streep flops down on the couch to quake and hyperventilate with self-induced hysterics. In moments like this, Streep’s physical tics and verbal curlicues get her laughs, but they’re not so much creative, character-specific gestures as desperate attempts to give these flat, stop-and-start scenes a pulse by any means necessary.

 

When Lisa finally decides to put an end to her strategizing and come clean to Rafi about all the moral and ethical breaches she has made, Streep is left with very little to play beyond peacemaking niceties. In her final scene, we find Lisa offering learned advice about The Ways of the Heart to her dipshit son, who is once again in the doghouse for sleeping with one of Rafi’s colleagues during their breakup. It’s one of the spare scenes in Younger’s film that suggests that Lisa might be an honest-to-goodness woman rather than a primitive cartoon of one, but by then such a deed is far too late. Prime is the kind of abomination that makes you actually start to resent Streep for offering her talents, never mind her prestige, to a project so tone-deaf and beneath her.

WHY, MERYL, WHY?

With the major exceptions of Postcards from the Edge and Death Becomes Her, Streep largely struggled in her early and mid-career to find comedic vehicles that matched, rather than vandalized, her brilliant if occasionally broad expertise in this genre. Prime represents the absolute nadir of these endeavors, but the following year would bring two fruitful and fascinating comic collaborations to wipe away any and all memories of the loathsome clinker that preceded them. The first of these projects would initiate a heaven-sent meeting with one of American cinema’s most gloriously idiosyncratic chroniclers of the human condition. And the second would introduce a whole new generation of fans to the uncanny and entrancing character-building of this unvanquished acting legend.

previously on Months of Meryl

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Reader Comments (26)

Wow, so much hate… I didn't expected it, but OK.
I actually like Prime and think it's underrated. It's not a typical on-the-nose-funny Comedy, it has some nice serios Moments that I feel sorry you couldn't or wanted to see.
One of her worst? I just want to bang my head with a pfan.

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

I'm with Sonja, I didn't hate Prime as much as you did, it was not great by any means, but it did make me laugh a few times. I could see that Streep wanted to make a comedy, and this was the best thing available at the time.
Also,It gave her a chance to play a Jewish Mother, which was something she clearly wanted to try.
So we all agree that good comedies are really hard to find. And yes, there was definitely some over-acting but I liked the glasses and the chunky necklaces.

Streep is way more choosy about scripts than most actresses who are over 40. So this is a rare mediocrity. Ironic that Sandra Bullock turned this down, when Bullock has done far more comedies that are of dubious quality.
But as you hinted, she did this just before she did 2 gems that really took her career to a new high.

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Roles ARE still rare for actresses over 40, let alone over 50+60.
We just had Frances McDormand winning her second lead actress Oscar, but that was the actress' best role in over 20 years after her first win.

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

As TFE's resident Streep hater I appreciate the Jewish mother drag routine in Prime. Prime is far from the worst thing she's been in.

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I also thought this was just fine. But i had a HUGE crush on Greenberg back then and I also saw this on a plane. So...

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Did Bullock turn this down for Miss Congeniality 2? Now THAT is a terrible movie. I agree with LadyEdith, she has made far worse movies than Prime.

I thought this movie was not a masterpiece but entertaining enough, and I think Meryl's hair and glasses and wardrobe are cute. She looks like a middle-aged woman who puts a fair bit of effort into her appearance, not like an overly comic presence at all (for "joke" costuming/hair as a Jewish mother, see some of Streisand's recent movies).

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I actually really liked this movie when I first saw it. It may need a rewatch to re-evaluate it, but I have a lot of fond memories from it. Did I think it was amazing? No. Did I enjoy it? Most definitely.

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

I think you completely misread the point of this movie, which was to be a light comedy.

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

John & Matt: You guys SUCK

Prime is totally enjoyable, lightweight fun!!

What a bunch of grinches you are.

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDAVID

I've never even heard of this Streep cinematic outing!

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrick gould

Woah guys - this is some petty shit! What on earth possessed this vitriolic response to an enjoyable, silly Friday night/Sunday hungover comedy watch?

I really liked this film - I didn’t try read into it too much - I went to see it with my mum, we laughed and enjoyed ourselves and forgot about it afterwards and sometimes - that’s what I love movies for.

I think this series is a great read - but is it possible you need to stop looking at all films through the same deep analytic lens? This one was not made to be compared with Sophie’s choice and should be taken what for what it is - a fun forgettable piece of fluff. Remember to have fun while doing this series too!

(I’m still not over you both not having eeen Death becomes Her either - that negates most of what you say in my mind haha)

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan

I've never even heard of this Streep cinematic outing!

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrick gould

I LOVE Streep... HATED this rom-com. It is so beneath her. Kathy Bates would have been better here.

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

I love this movie! I've seen it three times! She's not particulary good in it, miscast again, but Uma shines and Bryan is adorable (and hot).

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I saw this at the cinema when it came out. I don't remember much about it now but I remember enjoying it at the time. Perhaps it's dated badly?

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

i remember kind of enjoying this in tehaters too though it was obviously instantly disposable. I've never even thought about it since so i never questioned whether to return to it ;) perhaps it is as bad as you say.

August 9, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Not a favorite. Can just imagine when this was first announced as a Bullock/Streep comedic vehicle I never expected such an indie type script. In the end, so far from what I expected especially once Uma came on board.
What I do admire is Streep offering her talent to up and coming directors.

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

OMG - if you are going to attack something as terrible, go after Still of the Night! Prime is fair for sure but has light and funny performances by Uma Thurman, Bryan Greenberg and Streep as the classic UES Jewish mom/shrink. It’s worldwide gross was $67M - hardly chopped liver.

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJono

I so disagree! Prime is clever, lighthearted, funny and well-acted. For a rom-com, it's actually one of the much better examples, with both Streep and Thurman in fine form. And it is far, far better than the boated Death Becomes Her.

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAce Black

John Rothman, who plays her husband in Prime, is a close friend of Streep. He was also the librarian who was mean to Meryl (“EMIL DICKENS!”) in Sophie’s Choice, the husband of slut Thelma Rice in Heartburn, and the magazine editor who hires AnnE Hathaway after Miranda Priestly’s referral in The Devil Wears Prada. Their brief scenes together in Prime, especially the one in the furniture store, are about the only parts of this movie I enjoyed.

August 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBC

David... should we excuse all light entertainment for offensive material?

August 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMargot

Oy vey. Prime is not that bad. It's not anyone's best work, and certainly not Meryl's best work. It is a Sunday on the couch kind of movie.

August 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCharlieG

I wonder if you guys had gone into more details about "all the racist, sexist, and homophobic garbage that is casually spouted from beginning to end," then maybe your review would be more convincing to your audience?

I just don't get Greenberg. Sure, he's good-looking, but so are a million other actors. That guy is so bland, he's like a walking bowl of unflavored oatmeal.

August 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Though this is far down in my ranking of Streep performances, it is not the bottom; that honor still goes to The House of the Spirits.

I saw this when it first came out, but your write-up reminds me of that movie she did more recently with Tommy Lee Jones (also not great). Same kind of middle-age ugly clothes, chunky necklaces, and dullish hairstyles. I like my Meryl in period clothing (Graham, Thatcher, Pankhurst, Child), glam (like Miranda, The Witch), or posh or MILF (like Jane in It's Complicated, Julia in Defending Your Life, Donna). That said, this series has also made me question my undying love for her as a performer. Face the facts, folks. Some times she's just not that great.

Can't wait until you get to MM:HWGA. At my screening, the audience cheered when she popped on screen for the first time.

August 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I think “trainwreck” and “disaster” are a bit much. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch, but it’s leaps and bounds better than many romcoms of the last 10 years.

August 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterZach

Suzanne, MISS CONGENIALITY 2 should have worked and just ... Doesn't. I know Bullock was trying to do a female buddy comedy with no love interest, but it's interesting she wasn't able to do it successfully until THE HEAT (with the roles flipped and Bullock as straight woman).

August 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

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