July 17, 2002

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'Never Again'
Better with age

THE PREMISE OF Never Again isn't just stale, it's fossilized: two middle-age strangers, stung by defunct marriages and empty-nest syndrome, meet cute, then fall in love, despite having vowed to risk romance "never again." You'd be happy if that formula got recycled never again, right? Or so one would think. Uneven, sometimes clumsy, yet often screamingly funny, Eric Schaeffer's latest NYC-shot indie flick is the first one of his anyone is likely to care about since My Life's in Turnaround eight years ago. Jill Clayburgh and Jeffrey Tambor play 54-year-old singles hitting midlife crises. She's a social worker whose husband left for a younger woman and whose daughter just left for college; he's an exterminator and a jazz pianist who, after decades of failed heterosexual liaisons, wonders whether he's been playing on the wrong team. Each fleeing humiliating "dates" one night, they both end up in a gay bar, where he at first makes the alarming error of mistaking her for a transsexual. Things can only get better from there, though his commitment phobia and other problems create inevitable speed bumps. Though it looks like a TV movie and occasionally hits blaring flat notes, Never Again surprises by being more naughty than nice – it's the most bawdy movie out there this side of Notorious C.H.O., and all the sexual humor somehow manages to avoid any whiff of American Pie-type juvenilia. There are sequences here that, while hardly subtle, duly bring the house down. And Schaeffer gives Clayburgh a riot act-reading scene that brings Never Again some needed depth and genuine pain (which helps sustain viewer goodwill when the movie ends on a cheap, cutesy sight-gag note). Both stars are excellent, as is Bill Duke as Tambor's laconic best friend, but beyond a few overamped moments, the most consistent pleasure here is Clayburgh, who's never played anything remotely this potty-mouthed before. There's something truly inspired about seeing her cheerfully regale two girlfriends (Caroline Aaron and Sandy Duncan) at a beauty parlor with last night's scoreboard: "He fucked me, I strangled him, and he came!" Attagirl. (Dennis Harvey)