In the new movie “Prime,” Meryl Streep is wearing a lavender button-down shirt, a red shawl draped comfortably around her broad shoulders and a brown hairdo that manages to have bangs, wings and flips all going at the same time. But somehow it’s the double strand of big red beads dangling around her neck like a loose noose that manages to convey the high state of suffering — boy does she suffa — of a guilt-ridden, guilt-giving Jewish mother.
That’s right, 56-year-old actress extraordinaire Meryl Streep, of “Out of Africa/Sophie’s Choice/Kramer vs. Kramer/Postcards from the Edge/Angels in America/etc.” and 13 Academy Awards fame has taken on the tragicomic role of a Jewish mother.
And oy! What a Jewish mother she is. Streep plays Lisa Metzger, an Upper West Side therapist who loves too much: She loves patients like Rafi (Uma Thurman), her eldest son David (Bryan Greenberg) and her religion (Judaism). When Lisa discovers that her 37-year-old patient has been dating her 23-year-old son, she is beset by a professional concern that is the classic stuff of comedic conflict: Should she continue to treat this patient and how? But her character also is more deeply plagued by a concern that is tragedy for her: Her son is dating a woman who is not Jewish.
To be sure, interfaith dating is not the only theme or conflict in the film. “Prime” is a New York romantic riff on love and what happens when obstacles are placed in the way — obstacles like age, family, religion or the fact that your therapist is the mother of the man you’re in love with (a situation that’s probably less likely to happen in real life than in the movies).
But at its core “Prime” is also a movie about the not very cinematic subject of religion — and the threat of intermarriage.
“I thought it was really unusual to have a script that had as one of its central dilemmas the question of faith,” Streep said. “That’s just amazing. That’s not edgy at all, but it’s something people contend with.”
It is a subject that writer/director Ben Younger contends with personally: He was raised Modern Orthodox in Brooklyn and Staten Island. The 33-year-old New Yorker, who began his career in politics before he became a filmmaker (his first film was “Boiler Room” in 2000), is no longer part of that community, but is still connected.
Younger believes that the Jewish community — the religious community — needs to be more open to the “other” in the world, when it comes to the arts and when it comes to dating as well.
“If Judaism is so wonderful — and it is — then why close yourself off?” said the tall, New York hipster. “Anyone who knows me knows it’s so ingrained, I am Jewish through and throughout, and it’s how I am, so why not share that with someone else?”
He could have been quoting the David character: “If it’s as good as we say it is, why is it threatening to speak to someone who isn’t Jewish?”
“It is. It is a great way of life. It touches on your daily life in a way that I haven’t seen any other religion — so why this fear?” he said. “Why immediately close off someone from your world? Maybe they’ll love it too.”
“Prime” opens in the Bay Area on Friday, Oct. 28.