Film Review: Unlimited Suicide

BY BEN LETZLER

WHAT IS LOVE? For sale from SKS Studios of Heidelberg is this plaster life mask of Uma Thurman, now starring in the new romantic comedy Prime.
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On October 28th, stylish young director Ben Younger, the precocious artist son of an Upper West Side psychiatrist, is coming out with Prime, his new movie from his own screenplay about the precocious artist son of an Upper West Side psychiatrist. This is 23-year-old David Bloomberg (27 year-old Bryan Greenberg), who falls for 37-year-old model Rafi Gardet (34-year-old Uma Thurman). Uma’s psychiatrist turns out to be the director’s (alter ego’s) mother, which is to say Meryl Streep, who accent-acts Jewish like the death-bound Sir Laurence Olivier did in the 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer (just released on an excellent new 25th-anniversary edition DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment). The love story goes a little like this: The characters admire each other’s physical attributes at length. They visit with outspokenly self-serving gay Republicans in the Hamptons. Uma buys a Nintendo. Then they have a contrived fight: Uma discovers the film’s comic relief, Scary Movie’s Jon Abrahams, hiding in her closet with a beer. David has an interlude with one of those models who seem to be constructed entirely out of legs. And then love ends.

And it ends in a curious way indeed. Near the end of the film comes what I might term the Scene of the Oaths of Love. Our hero is atop Uma. They are wrapped up in bedsheets with the film’s PG-13 rating written all over them, layered together like some sort of prim Hollywood lasagna, he all ripple noodle to her creamy white ricotta cheese. And he says to her – here the ink in my critic’s notebook ran with the tears I shed for our young lovers, and our adult literacy programs – “I want to give it to you. I want to make a baby with you.” Uma replies that she does not love him. An intertitle informs us that a year has passed, and then the hero, alone in the snow, happens to see Uma through a frosty window. That he is reliving a scene from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which his alter ego behind the camera surely saw in film school, cheers him not at all. A year has gone by; Uma and Mr. Uma’s ages are no longer 23 and 37; they are no longer Prime.

There it is: Love, says our purported romantic comedy, is a nullity, a numerology, a game of dress-up poets play on our baser instincts. Some believe in a higher power. Some believe in the ties of a mystical union. Some people – many middle-class Americans, such as we have them anymore – still fear old age without children, death without mourners, the price of real estate without roommates. But Prime is about the easy pleasures, and easy loneliness, of the idle rich, who are Younger’s brethren: our bankers, our brokers, most of the people in our entertainment and fashion industries, almost all of whom now have parents who own vineyards. For them, for Younger, love = sex + astrology. This equation may explain why Sandra Bullock refused to play the lead in Prime without major script revisions, revisions that Younger refused. Certainly bad scripts never stopped Sandra Bullock before. No, it would seem that she believes in love. Sandra Bullock turned back from the abyss.

I can hardly expect that other critics will share these insights. They are not much, though they are assuredly more here, in our fine Harvard Law Record, than the assembled critical voices of the daily press can be hoped to muster. Ben Younger is a brave man as an artist; as a writer he has a fine ear for dialogue, and an almost fluent command of our English language. His film is part of the discussion of our nation’s New Conservatism. In reply, there is little more to be said than the gift G. K. Chesterton gave us in two paragraphs written a little over a century ago in an essay entitled “A Defence of Rash Vows.” I will close with those.

The revolt against vows has been carried in our day even to the extent of a revolt against the typical vow of marriage. It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a yoke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed by all lovers on themselves. They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words – ‘free-love’ – as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.

It is exactly this backdoor, this sense of having a retreat behind us, that is, to our minds, the sterilizing spirit in modern pleasure. Everywhere there is the persistent and insane attempt to obtain pleasure without paying for it. Thus, in politics the modern Jingoes practically say, ‘Let us have the pleasure of conquerors without the pains of soldiers: let us sit on sofas and be a hardy race.’ Thus, in religion and morals, the decadent mystics say: ‘Let us have the fragrance of sacred purity without the sorrows of self-restraint; let us sing hymns alternately to the Virgin and Priapus.’ Thus in love the free-lovers say: ‘Let us have the splendour of offering ourselves without the peril of committing ourselves; let us see whether one cannot commit suicide an unlimited number of times.’

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