Prime and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (review)

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Situation Tragedy

If it’s otherwise idle hands in Hollywood who make sitcoms, does that officially make them the devil’s work? Cuz it’s always seemed that way to me, with the typical sitcom’s idiotic pretense to ordinariness (Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of Queens, for instance) as a disguise for the basest stereotypes (Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of Queens, for instance) and its appeal to the lowest of the lowbrow. Except, of course, when it wants us to go all mushy over some moron learning the true meaning of fatherhood or puppies or Arbor Day — then the LAUGH sign prompting the conditioned studio audience switches over to AWWW and the bread-and-circuses entertainment switches from making fun of beer-bellied blue-collar schmoes with impossibly tolerant and beautiful wives and simply impossible mothers-in-law to asking us to welcome the spirit of Veterans’ Day into our hearts.

I ask merely for information, because I’m not sure that this is the essence we want seeping into our movies, especially not the ones aspiring to be more than throwaway junk to be consumed over TV dinners, and surely only Satan himself could be responsible for such things as Ray Romano and movies that look like sitcoms.
I mean, Prime is like what would happen if CBS gave Woody Allen a slot on Monday nights at 9:30: Oops, I Accidentally Screwed My Neurotic Jewish Therapist’s Overmothered Son. Maybe nobody ever told writer/director Ben Younger (who made his debut with the terrific Boiler Room and is obviously intent on having his first film be the pinnacle of his career) that unless you’re Noel Coward — which he isn’t — the whole open-doors, close-doors kind of physical comedy, with people who shouldn’t be meeting just missing each other as doors open and close, belongs nowhere but on tired CBS sitcoms. And caricatures of overprotective Jewish mothers like the one Meryl Streep portrays as if channeling chalk screeching along a blackboard belong nowhere but in the awful racist jokes told by your Uncle Tony at a 1973 First Communion party for your cousin.

Uma Thurman (Be Cool, Kill Bill: Volume 2) is Rafi Gardet, one of those creatures found only in absurd sitcoms, a New Yorker with a vaguely defined pretend-glamorous job that allows her to live in a stunning doorman building and prance around the city in a wardrobe that costs more than that doorman makes in a year; Rafi’s work involves wandering around fashion shoots, not actually doing anything that we can see, just looking hip and New Yorkerish. She’s 37 and just divorced and, because she is the movie stand-in for a New Yorker, she sees a therapist regularly — because New Yorkers are all miserable, don’t you know. But then she meets and falls in love with David Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg: The Perfect Score), a hunky artist who’s funny and sweet and makes her really happy. Okay, he’s only 23, and Rafi is embarrassed by the age difference, which is the source of a few minor and mostly unexplored moments of dramatic tension. And okay, his mother is Rafi’s shrink, Lisa Metzger (Streep: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Manchurian Candidate)… only Thurman doesn’t know it.

What makes Prime a sitcom is that that goofy and highly unlikely coincidence becomes the basis for all the film’s attempts at humor. Instead of, oh, employing the age difference as a metaphor for the battle of the sexes, filmmaker Younger wants us to titter at Thurman waxing rhapsodic over her new man’s beautiful penis to his mother while Mom secretly kvetches over her little boy’s erotic adventures with this shiksa. What, is David trying to kill his poor mother by actually having a penis in first place, and then insisting on using it on this non Jew?! Prime saves its biggest punches for Lisa, abusing her awfully, not just by making her squirm as she is forced to listen to her patient talk about what a bitch her boyfriend’s mother is, but by making the character such an outdated stereotype in the first place.

There’s a distasteful misogyny in that, which only gets worse when you add in the very sitcomish subplot about David’s best friend, Morris (Jon Abrahams: House of Wax, Wes Craven Presents: They), who takes particular glee in throwing actual pies in the faces of the women he goes out with who turn him down for a second date, which is all of them. Because in this black-and-white sitcom world, all women deserve it.

Ah, but Younger, just like the sitcoms he is aping, wants to have his rugelach and eat it, too, wants us to get all sentimentally gooey: see, not only can Jews and Gentiles get along, eventually, but look how this young man David blossoms under the sensitive attentions of his very own Mrs. Robinson to tutor him in the ways of love.

Oy vey.

Far from heaven
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio wouldn’t have a laugh track and would air on Lifetime, but it’s a sitcom nevertheless, whipping hardship into a nutrition-free froth of nostalgia and facile charm: it’s The Wonder Years as produced by Good Housekeeping magazine.

Evelyn Ryan — this is true — was an Ohio housewife with too many kids and an irresponsible drunk of a husband who kept her family together and fed and housed mainly through many fortuitous contest wins through the 1950s and 60s. It’s sort of an enchanting idea, but mostly kind of a sad one: Ryan started out as a newspaper journalist in the 1930s, but then she got married, and middle-class married women didn’t hold down paying jobs in that era; it was an insult to their men, or something, the suggestion that they couldn’t support their wives. Ryan’s wins weren’t really fortuitous — the contests were all about skill and talent, not the luck of the draw — and she could have been making a helluva lot more money writing jingles as an employee of an ad agency instead of merely submitting them to win TVs and bicycles and 5-minute supermarket shopping sprees.

But even that is granting the film — from director Jane Anderson, who adapted the script from a memoir by one of Ryan’s daughters — much more dramatic impetus than it actually has. This is pretty much the tiny extent of the story: Evelyn enters jingle contests and wins stuff, which makes her loutish husband, Kelly (Woody Harrelson: After the Sunset, Anger Management), angry, because it points out what a failure he is, which makes him drink his pay, which forces Evelyn to enter more contests. It’s all setup, and little complication beyond that. And the drama, weirdly, decreases as the film unspools, because the story becomes less likely to have been told in the first place if Ryan hadn’t kept winning bigger and bigger prizes as her need got more and more desperate — so of course she’s going to have a “lucky” win just when she really needs it.

The real problem with the film, though, and where it falls into sitcom territory, is with Evelyn herself. Which isn’t to say that Julianne Moore’s (The Forgotten, Laws of Attraction) performance per se is the issue — she gives Evelyn far more depth than many other actors would have brought to her, but the script gives her so little to work with that Moore still can’t do enough. Perhaps the real Evelyn was as unflappable and level-headed as the film suggests, but her saintliness and white-bread demureness, even in the face of Kelly’s increasingly bad behavior, is trying — the truth may be stranger than fiction, but it isn’t always dramatically interesting or satisfying. Worse, Anderson’s frantic retro attitude — weren’t the 50s quaint! — ends up turning Evelyn into a caricature of the 50s sitcom mom: not the real flesh-and-blood woman facing genuine misfortune and struggling to overcome it through her own cleverness and initiative, but a cheerful fantasy in a smartly pressed apron. If Evelyn ever raged against a world that placed strict limits on what she was allowed to accomplish, we never learn about it. Which helps to make her and her story all too forgettable when it could have been a perceptive tale about the labyrinthine societal rules that women are forced to navigate, and the price they pay for doing so.

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for sexual content including dialogue, and for language
official site | IMDB

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some disturbing images and language
official site | IMDB

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