Movies about dementia are flying at us pretty fast lately, but if you go into Here Today expecting it to be a sobering drama like The Father, you’ll come away disappointed. Written and directed by Billy Crystal, his first film behind the camera since HBO’s *61 a couple of decades ago, the film is a mix of lighthearted comedy about an unlikely friendship, but also about an aging comedy writer who is fighting a losing battle with memory loss. It’s the kind of well-intentioned, easygoing film that feels like it should be from another era, like Crystal’s heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, but paired up with Tiffany Haddish there’s enough solid chemistry to look past its many issues.
Crystal wrote himself the part he knows best, of course, that of a legendary comedy writer, Charlie Berns, on a psuedo-SNL sketch show. The writers room is filled with youngsters pitching awful sketches, but Charlie is the encouraging sort who alway offers to give solid advice. You can imagine Crystal at his typewriter (much like the one Charlie uses) figuring this is how it should be on television right now, with guys like him mentoring the upstars rather than being pushed out of the business as so many veteran comics have. Charlie’s a good guy, but his memory is slipping, slowly but surely. He’s kept it hidden from his children (loyal son played by Penn Badgley, estranged daughter played by Laura Benanti) and the guys at work.
Probably the only movie that will ever have a meet-cute of Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish, Here Today has Charlie’s life upended by street singer Emma, with their initial lunch, she bought a date with him for $22 at auction, ending in a shellfish allergy and trip to the hospital. From there, it looks as if this will be one of those stalker comedies where the unwanted person keeps hanging around, refusing to get the hint. But no, Emma and Charlie hit it off swimmingly, with their many cultural and generational differences drawing them together. She’s a livewire of energy (who has no idea Charlie is famous), and he gets a friend who isn’t just another colleague.
It’s all a little too…perfect? There’s something about how easily Emma fits into Charlie’s life that had me wondering if she were a figment of his decaying mental state. Romantic energy mingles in there pretty awkwardly, too, with Emma often talking about how she would break the “old man” if they ever did the horizontal hula. I’m not going to lie to you; Emma is a combination of some pretty terrible stereotypes and tropes. We know precious little about her, and she mainly functions to enlighten Charlie.
However, when Charlie’s dementia starts to become a problem too big to ignore, we see that Emma is more than just colorful outfits and a feisty attitude. She enjoys being part of his life, going out on “dates” to the wax museum and generally keeping him active. It’s clear what she’s doing for Charlie; it’s not so clear what he is doing for her. That’s a question Charlie’s daughter keeps raising, as if speaking for the rest of us who are wondering the same thing. To say the least, Emma is an underwritten character, but then, all of the characters are except for Charlie.
Crystal is particularly inspired when covering the behind-the-scenes stuff at the comedy show, where the upstart writers are openly discussing Charlie’s value. It feels like it should be in a different movie, though, where Crystal can put the focus on it that he clearly wants to. When put together with Charlie’s relationship to Emma, it just doesn’t gel as it should.
Here Today is co-written by Alan Zweibel, as an expansion of the latter’s short “The Prize”. You can see a bit of straining to flesh out the story into a full-length feature, with an excessive amount of time spent on Charlie’s guilt, seen through exhaustive flashbacks, over the death of his wife (Louisa Krause). Crystal performs his role with the charm and wit we’ve always been accustomed to from him; in that he absolutely hasn’t lost a step. If you love Billy Crystal you’ll love him in this. Haddish has the tougher role because Emma is so thinly-drawn, but her brash style makes for a nice complement to Crystal’s deadpan. A couple of fun cameos by Sharon Stone and Kevin Kline, as actors in a screwball comedy Charlie wrote years earlier, had me wanting to see more of that one. Is there a #ReleaseTheCrystalCut out there somewhere?
Genuinely affecting moments that highlight life’s unexpected twists, turns, joys, and pains are what Here today has to offer. It’s a kindhearted, imperfect film that would’ve been significantly less without Crystal and Haddish keeping our attention.
Here Today opens in theaters on May 7th.