Calling your film Never Again is like handing an ax to a critic and meekly placing your head on the chopping block. Will some of my colleagues write "Never See Never Again" or "Not Even Once, Let Alone Again" or "Another Eric Schaeffer film? Never Again!"? You betcha.
The latter is pretty much how I felt after reviewing Schaeffer's last feature, the insufferably egocentric Wirey Spindell (1999), but Never Again, while nothing special, is pleasant, diverting and modest -- definitely a step in the right direction.
The hook emphasized in the film's marketing is that Christopher (Jeffrey Tambor, best known as Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show), a middle-aged exterminator and jazz musician, has had so many failed relationships with women that he's beginning to think that maybe he's gay. In fact, he's having impotence problems. This -- together with the "gay vibe" he gives off -- causes his latest pickup to simply assume that he's bi, tilting toward gay. Her casual remark leads to a gay sex dream, which makes him wonder whether she might be right.
His best friend, Earl (Bill Duke), points out that it's ridiculous to begin to doubt your orientation at age 54, after a multitude of hetero affairs. "All guys have gay dreams now and again," he says, with a shift of his eyes that suggests a broad range of possible meanings. Nonetheless, Christopher decides to experiment in baby steps, starting with chicks with dicks. Earl points out -- in a joke Tom Arnold used about ten years ago on Letterman -- that they're not chicks with dicks...they're guys with tits. And an encounter with the utterly grotesque Alex (Michael McKean, in yet another chameleonlike performance) makes Christopher move right on to a normal old gay bar.
Grace (Jill Clayburgh), like Christopher, is 54 and divorced and has just been through a horrible and mercifully short Internet blind date, and ducks into the bar to unwind. They strike up a conversation, with her assuming he's gay and him assuming she's another guy with tits who had a much better surgeon than poor Alex.
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Once the misunderstanding is ironed out, the entire sexual identity theme disappears. It's really no more than a protracted setup for a modern version of a '30s screwball comedy's "meet cute." From then on, the film traverses much more shopworn turf: Two people start a sexual relationship based on avoiding love and then, natch, are in a quandary when they do fall in love. This is not exactly original, but Schaeffer and his cast manage to make it tolerable. There are some funny set pieces, one of which is hugely implausible but is hilarious enough (and brief enough) to be forgiven.
Clayburgh and Tambor makes an unusual couple. For that matter, anybody and Tambor would make an unusual couple, since he is not -- no big insult here -- a frequent or obvious choice for leading man. It's rather nice to see a merely pleasant-looking, middle-aged, bald, out-of-shape guy as a viable romantic lead, though (of course) it would have been preferable to have equal-opportunity averageness. Clayburgh is a bit too blatantly pretty to qualify. (Her casting is not as outrageous, though, as, say, Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer taking over the "plain folks" roles created on stage by F. Murray Abraham and Kathy Bates in Frankie and Johnny.)
But the casting was predetermined. Schaeffer wrote the piece specifically for Tambor and Clayburgh after playing their son in the short-lived sitcom Everything's Relative. Luckily he didn't write himself into Never Again. This is the first of his films without him at the center, which is to the film's benefit. It's not that he's a bad actor or even an uninteresting screen presence, but rather that he's finally made a film that doesn't feel like a paean to himself.
Schaeffer seems to run out of steam toward the end, resorting to two -- count 'em, two -- sudden tragedies to give the plot its final push. It's not terribly surprising that Never Again, which played at the SXSW Film Festival more than a year ago, is only now making it into theaters.