American romantic films involving leads older than forty are sufficiently rare on the ground that one would like to embrace “Never Again,” in which the decidedly unhunky Jeffrey Tambor enters into a comically troubled relationship with the no-longer-young-but-still-beautiful Jill Clayburgh. Unfortunately, as written and directed by Eric Schaeffer (“My Life’s in Turnaround,” “If Lucy Fell”), the picture is as cutesy and artificial as most Hollywood will-they-or-won’t-they scenarios featuring ultra-attractive studs and starlets. “Never Again” may be a low-budget independent production, but its mindset is no more advanced than that of the most ham-fisted studio efforts along similar lines.
Tambor plays Christopher, a long-divorced exterminator who’s had a succession of meaningless short-term dalliances, the last of which ends when he’s unable to perform in bed. Persuaded that his failure might indicate that he’s always been wrong about his sexual orientation, he decides to sample the gay lifestyle, tentatively, by engaging the services of a transvestite (Michael McKean). That doesn’t suit him, though, and the person he eventually meets in a bar is Grace (Clayburgh), a divorcee whose daughter has just left for college and who’s just had an unhappy experience with a blind date (he turned out to be a little person). After a highly contrived introduction–Christopher assumes Grace is another guy in drag–the two haltingly link up and eventually grow close. But Christopher is decidedly guy-shy: despite what seems a perfect coupling, he breaks it off. Needless to say, however, it just won’t do for them to be forever parted, so Schaeffer comes up with a particularly ridiculous twist on the “Affair to Remember” formula to close things on a happier note–a denouement that literally involves a character being run down by a horse in the middle of Manhattan. Never say that implausibilities are reserved for Hollywood blockbusters.
The problem with “Never Again” isn’t merely that apart from the age of the lead duo it follows exactly the trajectory one expects, but that Schaeffer feels compels throughout to employ routine characters and add scenes that are precious or sometimes positively bizarre. Grace, for example, has the obligatory sharp-tongued friends (Caroline Aaron and Sandy Duncan) who pressure her into dating again, and Christopher is saddled with a predictably garrulous, demanding mother (Suzanne Shepherd). But how, exactly, should one take a simply appalling sequence in which Grace dons a leather dominatrix mask and a plastic penis, only to be unable to get the stuff off when Christopher and Mom visit her apartment unannounced? And the episode toward the beginning involving Tambor and McKean is very poorly written and, in the playing, distinctly embarrassing to both actors, as well as to the audience.
“Never Again” isn’t without some small pleasures. Tambor and Clayburgh are both talented veterans, and there are moments when they overcome the archness of the material and achieve a touch of magic. It’s also a joy to encounter once more, after far too long an absence, Bill Duke as Earl, the buddy with whom Christopher plays jazz regularly in a little bistro. He’s wonderfully laid-back and nonchalant, and if the script had captured some of his easygoing charm, the picture could have been a winner. Instead, thanks to Schaeffer’s blunt-force writing and sledgehammer direction, it’s just a predictable take on the “Affair to Remember” formula with a thick overlay of heavy-handed quirkiness. A pity so much talent has been wasted on such an inferior script.