Now that Woody Allen is no longer making acceptable Woody Allen movies, it's surprising we're not seeing more comedies like "Prime," a slight but well-meaning picture that strives for the same kind of pleasurably neurotic sophistication that Allen, at his best, used to give us. With "Prime," writer-director Ben Younger isn't just slavishly imitating Allen. For one thing, his rhythms are much more relaxed than Allen's -- maybe a bit too relaxed. But the movie's premise, at least -- Lisa (Meryl Streep), a motherly psychotherapist, discovers that one of her patients, Rafi (Uma Thurman), is dating her son, David (Bryan Greenberg, of TV's "Unscripted") -- bears all the earmarks of an affectionate Allen homage. You get the feeling Younger -- whose previous feature (and debut) was the intriguing 2000 "Boiler Room" -- simply wanted to make the kind of movie that he'd like to be able to go out and see himself, the sort of quiet, intelligent comedy that's increasingly rare on the landscape these days, and you can't blame him for trying.
The shrink-patient-son conflict in "Prime" unfolds in numerous onionskin layers: When Lisa discovers Rafi is dating her son, she plays dumb and continues to treat her, after her own shrink advises her that her first responsibility is to help her patient. But Lisa objects to the match on several counts: Rafi, a recent divorcee, is 14 years older than David (he's 23). Worse yet, she's not Jewish, and as much as Lisa likes Rafi, she doesn't fit every one of Lisa's hopes and dreams for her son.
Rafi and David have their own problems: They get on like gangbusters in bed (occasioning Rafi to tell Lisa, with earnest rapture, that his penis is so beautiful she'd like to "knit it a hat"). But the age difference causes some fine fissures that turn into serious cracks: David, an aspiring painter, loses his day job; Rafi, a grown-up with a serious career, becomes frustrated by the way he lies around her apartment all day.
Younger valiantly tries to balance all these crisscrossing conflicts, but they start wearing thin far too early in the picture. Streep obviously enjoys doing comedy, and she has some amusing moments here, particularly when it first dawns on her that the young man Rafi has been raving about (and revealing so many intimate secrets about) is her own son: She flutters her arms helplessly, eventually flopping on her own couch, stroking her tummy as if it were an infant she was trying to soothe.
But Younger trains the camera on Streep so directly that he drains some of the humor off what she does: We see her working at being funny, and that's anything but funny. The scene might have been hilarious if it were more offhand and indirect; then it might have had the effect of fooling us into believing that we'd glimpsed a secret, embarrassing moment for the character, instead of a routine presented for our entertainment.
Even so, Thurman and Streep do have some lovely scenes together, especially late in the picture as they learn to navigate their new, intensely complicated relationship. And although Thurman doesn't seem as loose and confident as she did in the "Kill Bill" pictures (particularly "Kill Bill Volume 2," where her poise and subtlety surpassed anything she's done before), and shows close to zero chemistry with the leaden Greenberg, she does throw off a great deal of luminous charm. The lunar glow that surrounds her isn't enough to power the whole movie, but it's dazzling enough to distract us from its various flaws. She needs a comedy, and a leading man, tall enough to stand up to her.