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Never Better

The Indy Film Showcase makes out with older women.

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After Eric Schaeffer made the 1996 amiable date movie If Lucy Fell with a pre-Sex and the City Sarah Jessica Parker, it would have been forgivable had he continued in this vein. Movie marketing is about presenting flattering images of young hipsters to young hipsters. Schaeffer may have had the opportunity to repeat himself and, like the studly ball player of Damn Yankees, sell his soul to the devil in the process.

The fact is that he completely ignores trends and demographics with his latest movie, Never Again, the May 3 Indy Film Showcase presented by the Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee. Here is a movie that's so rare, it's shocking: a well-acted and cleverly scripted story for adults that features as its Romeo and Juliet a pair of lonely 54-year-olds. Where the film succeeds in hooking all viewers is in the protagonists' contemporary sexual angst: He's wondering whether it's time for a little experimentation of the male-to-male variety, and she's debating the "You need to get laid" challenge offered by her girlfriends.

Jill Clayburgh, whose career had significant momentum in the late 1970s when she earned back-to-back Oscar nominations for Best Actress (for An Unmarried Woman, which she should have won, and Starting Over), stars as Grace, a social do-gooder who has been having empty-nest syndrome since her daughter's move to college. Jeffrey Tambor (an actor whose face appears everywhere, though few people know his name) plays Christopher, a pest exterminator who is in such a funk that his snow globe doesn't even respond to his touch.

Their paths cross (hilariously) in a gay bar after they each have had a disastrous date: he with a deceitful she-male (Michael McKean) and she with a little person whose Internet photo neglects to say that he's posing beside a Shetland pony and not a Clydesdale. (She-males and little people probably will not find Schaeffer's script all that funny.) Both Grace and Christopher have adopted the vow of the title, yet for the rest of the film they warm to the idea of trading it in for "Well, maybe..."

The parties' self-imposed exile certainly can have a dark and painful side to it. But Schaeffer's edgy, profane script and Tambor's and Clayburgh's willingness to be vulnerable, scared and ridiculous spins the movie in another direction. With its sturdily R-rated sight gags -- which include but are not limited to a strap-on with a mind of its own -- Never Again often recalls the more bizarre moments of 1996's Flirting With Disaster, another hip comedy that appealed to younger audiences while giving Mary Tyler Moore a bra-baring role.

Regarding the sexual situations Schaeffer put her through, Clayburgh says she trusted him implicitly. "I encouraged him!" she adds enthusiastically. "My big thing was that people over fifty are kind of written off as harpies on television -- the horrible mother or whatever. And not only are they desexualized, they're anti-sexualized, shown wrinkling up their noses, which is just bull. The truth is, people in their fifties have very free lives. And I was interested in something very real and funny but not sentimental or unsexual."

Schaeffer's script easily turns toward the dramatic as well, as in a scene at the gay bar where Grace suffers a public meltdown. It's a movie about the joy and terror of connecting.

Clayburgh says that Schaeffer, who will discuss his film prior to its screening at Tivoli Manor Square, "has such an ear; he's so original. And because he finances the movies himself, he has the freedom to make the movie he wants to make," Clayburgh says.

Thinking aloud about the last great period of American movies -- the mid- to late '70s, which included Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman -- Clayburgh says, "I guess now it's all financial and corporate, where even a $10 million profit isn't enough. We've been turned down by a couple of distributors who say, 'Yes, we can make it profitable, but it's not worth it.' Even a movie like Broadcast News, which I watched the other night on television, was in the mid-'80s, and I thought, that movie could never get made today. It's too subtle.

"But people in their twenties and thirties have loved Never Again," Clayburgh continues. When we saw the reaction [to a screening at] South by Southwest in March -- the standing ovations -- we knew we had something people would like."

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