Jeffrey Tambor and Jill Clayburgh play lovers in their 50s in "Never Again," a good-natured but trivial Manhattan romantic comedy. It's a measure of this movie's rambunctious lewdness that its funniest sequence involves Clayburgh putting a sex toy to use and then getting surprised by Tambor and his bad-mouth mother. That scene has hilarious moments, but the contrived raunchiness there and elsewhere undermines the movie's obvious aspirations toward touching our hearts and celebrating maturity.
Can you really sympathize that much with a pair of frustrated 54-year-olds looking for love in porno shops? Watching Clayburgh, the feminist movie icon of 1978's "An Unmarried Woman," coping with a recalcitrant sex toy or viewing the dolorous Tambor's embarrassed jaunt through a gay bar full of winking hunks lends the movie an odd, lascivious twist that's not too appetizing. It's as if TV's Brady Bunch parents or the Golden Girls in their prime suddenly showed up in black-leather dominatrix outfits -- a scene that wouldn't be too out of place in this movie, which does give us Michael McKean ("Spinal Tap") as a flirty transsexual and Sandy Duncan ("Peter Pan") talking dirty at the hair salon.
As in his strange 1996 suicide comedy "If Lucy Fell," writer-director Eric Schaefer shows us a Manhattan of incurable romantics who sometimes act like sex fiends. Christopher Roland (Tambor) is a chunky, sad-eyed bachelor and exterminator who doubles as a jazz pianist. He has failed at relationships for 30 years and now wonders, after one night of impotence, if he isn't really gay. Confiding his suspicions to his understandably skeptical buddy and bass player Earl (Bill Duke) and apparently forgetting about Viagra, Christopher then heads somewhere toward Christopher Street, poring over sex ads and cruising bars.
Meanwhile, wistful social worker and divorcee Grace Minor (Clayburgh), left alone after her daughter departs for college -- and, predictably for this movie, an active sex life -- bemoans her own erotic inactivity with friends Elaine and Natasha (Caroline Aaron and Duncan). Grace starts using the personals column, but after a disastrous first date with a suave midget (who deceptively sent her his photo in a knight-in-shining armor outfit), Grace winds up in the same gay bar as Christopher for a "meet cute" scene of perverse double entendres and suffocating coyness. Afterward, they laugh, they love, they cry, they break up and get back together. But that bar scene sets the tone for the entire affair and the entire movie.
Schaefer obviously wants to undermine the current trend toward ignoring older generations in American movies -- and wasting or neglecting fine actors past their 40s -- while constantly deifying teens and young adults and their sexual antics. That's a laudable goal, and Tambor, Clayburgh, Duke and even Duncan are well up to it, giving "Never Again" performances well beyond the call of duty. I liked the subtler byplay between Clayburgh and Tambor and the more robust scenes between Tambor and Duke, even if their reactions to modern urban sexual excesses are often unbelievable. But I doubt if the solution to the movie industry's ludicrous ageism is showing 50-year-olds acting like randy 20-year-olds -- even if they are single, alone and living in Manhattan, the isle of joy.
1 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Directed and written by Eric Schaefer; photographed by Thom Ostrowski; edited by Mitch Stanley; production designed by John Nyomarkay; music by Amanda Kravat; produced by Terence Michael, Dawn Wolfrom, Bob Kravitz. A USA Films release; opens Friday, July 19. Running time: 1:27. MPAA rating: R (strong sexual content, including graphic dialogue and language).
Christopher Roland -- Jeffrey Tambor
Grace Minor -- Jill Clayburgh
Earl -- Bill Duke
Elaine -- Caroline Aaron
Natasha -- Sandy Duncan Alex -- Michael McKean
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times