In the new feature film “Prime,” which opens nationally October 28, Meryl Streep plays Lisa Metzger, a Jewish therapist on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The film gets rolling when one of her patients, 37-year-old Rafi (Uma Thurman), takes up with Metzger’s 23-year-old son, David (Bryan Greenberg). The film is directed by Ben Younger, a New York native who was raised in an Orthodox household. The Shmooze recently sat down with Younger to explore questions of interfaith dating, Jewish mother-son relationships and the perennial appeal of the shiksa goddess.
The Shmooze: Did you get notes or complaints that the movie was “too Jewish”?
Ben Younger: That was one of my biggest worries, but Universal never said a word. I think if it’s authentic, nobody cares. As long as it’s real, your movie can be as Greek, as Jewish, as Muslim as you want it to be; people don’t question it. I was nervous — there’s that feeling as a Jew that you don’t want to highlight yourself or make a big deal about anything you want to keep under the radar.
TS: How did you keep the film from being stereotypical?
BY: I think I did that by focusing more on Meryl as a professional, by not emphasizing the Judaism. I didn’t have her try to do an accent; that would have pushed it. If you give Meryl stuff that has the possibility of stereotype, she’ll avoid it. We didn’t have any conversations in which I said, “Look, this is how we grew up.”
TS: The David character tells his mother on the phone that he’s dating someone, and in answer to her unheard question he says, “No, Mom, she’s not Jewish.” And then, “No, I’m not trying to kill you.” Is “Prime” an argument for intermarriage?
BY: To me the movie is about the concept of love, and the endgame of love isn’t always marriage and kids. “Sometimes you love and you learn and you move on,” Lisa says. I think people are focused too much on a romantic relationship culminating in a marriage with children.
TS: So what do you think of interfaith dating?
BY : I think it’s important for all people to be open. It’s the exclusionary nature of religion that I have problems with. If it’s so wonderful, and it is, then why close yourself off? “It doesn’t have to be one or the other,” says David in the movie. No one’s saying give up your culture or history, but if you’re comfortable with your own culture and religion, why be afraid of going out with someone else?
TS: In the movie, Rafi tells David, “Things to avoid: Beginning sentences with ‘my mom.’” Do you think Jewish boys and their mothers have a strange relationship?
BY: Yeah, I do. Unusually close. I found that to be my experience. I think that Judaism in general promotes the family unit. It’s a family-based religion. I think that as a result, boys become very close and stay close with their mothers. I think it can go either way. If they’re abnormally close, it’s sort of Oedipal, they segue from mommy to mommy.
I think it’s also what makes Jewish men good husbands, and you hear talk about it, that they’re not afraid of closeness, of intimacy.
TS: So Uma Thurman plays the part of the ultimate shiksa goddess?
BY: Definitely. I wanted a blonde type, someone that would be irresistible to a nice Jewish mama’s boy. I think it’s about getting as far away as possible from what you grew up with. It’s probably healthy genetically. I think everyone wants something different from what they grew up with. I don’t think it’s the taboo thing; it’s the different thing. And Uma is the poster child for different as far as Jewish boys go. You don’t see Uma at the Young Israel.