In ''Prime," a surprisingly smart romantic comedy, Uma Thurman plays Rafi Gardet, a stunning New Yorker who's going through a divorce. After a week of being legally single, she starts seeing David Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg), a lanky and handsome artist who's insecure about his paintings. He calls her up and asks her out after they meet one night. She's reluctant to keep dating him: he's 23; she's 37 (the prime numbers to which the movie presumably refers). To her, the age difference ''smells of pool boy" at a resort.
That's what Rafi tells her therapist, the wise and insightful Lisa Metzger (Meryl Streep). Lisa is also friendly, encouraging, and motherly. For 23 years that maternal energy has been aimed at David, who is her son.
When Lisa finds this out, she is supposed to self-destruct with shock. She wants her son to marry a Jew -- his own age. But the movie doesn't go for farce, and tries instead to treat this snag as a real problem, one that David and Rafi become aware of long after Lisa does.
Too many American movies about families feel like sitcoms, but in ''Prime," writer-director Ben Younger creates a scenario with real-life consequences for his characters. Not major consequences, but little shifts that provide occasions for growth. As Hollywood movies go, this is unexpected and cosmopolitan, like finding a Euro in your box of Cracker Jack.
Younger's first movie, 2000's ''Boiler Room," prepared me to dislike this second one. ''Boiler Room" was a cocky stew of new-jack cinema -- Oliver Stone's ''Wall Street" meets a make-my-daddy-proud melodrama -- set in the world of do-it-yourself brokerage firms.
The director of that movie had a chip on his shoulder. He needed to grow up. With ''Prime," he has.
The movie could have been a string of grotesque insults, like last spring's ''Monster-in-Law." Once Lisa connects the dots between her patient's new love and her son's, Streep mines the physical comedy, but doesn't become a harridan. She knocks around her office until she makes a dramatic collapse in a chair. Her grief and exasperation feel just right.
Disgusted as Lisa is, she continues to treat Rafi. Her patient's happiness comes before her own, so, outrageously, she endures Rafi's ecstatic descriptions of sex with her son. Lisa also has to sit through Rafi's frustration with the lack of structure in David's life. He doesn't know what to do with himself, she complains. He lives with his grandparents, and his family doesn't seem to take his painting seriously, so he doesn't. (They should: They're vivid, urban oil portraits by Tim Okamura.)
Rafi complements David's aimlessness. She's a well-connected photo shoot producer. She introduces him to John Coltrane's music and an art dealer who likes David's work. And ''No. 203" is their favorite Mark Rothko painting.
Yes, Younger has made an update of the ''shiksa who changed my life" story in ''Annie Hall." But ''Prime" is missing the psychological acuity and scabrous cultural wit of Woody Allen at his best. These lovers meet standing in line to see Antonioni's ''Blow-Up" and never mention the movie.
Instead, ''Prime" has an of-the-moment rhythm that feels authentically, youthfully downtown. David and his best friend, Morris (Jon Abrahams), a preppy hip-hop Jew, wear trendy T-shirts with slogans such as ''Palestinians do it better." (Morris also happens to be a jolly misogynist who lives in a dump and throws pies in women's faces. But never mind: They're from Magnolia Bakery, the hipster's pastry shop of choice. ) There's also a sexy sequence in which David takes Rafi to a multiracial house party full of people who actually seem to be dancing to the classic Junior M.A.F.I.A. song on the soundtrack.
The great tensions in ''Prime" are not romantic but lifestyle-driven. The keepin'-it-realism of Lisa's parental and religious wishes is incompatible with David's open-minded, post-collegiate drift, which is at odds with Rafi's very adulthood. Lisa, Rafi, David, and even nasty little Morris have to ask whether how we live determines who we love and who loves us. Put that way, Younger isn't paging Woody Allen. He's channeling Carrie Bradshaw.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.