⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
Stars: Billy Crystal, Tiffany Haddish, Laura Benanti, Penn Badgley
Writers: Billy Crystal, Alan Zweibel
Director: Billy Crystal
There are so many other directions I kept hoping Billy Crystal’s new film, Here Today, would take; so many lines I hoped would not land at precisely the place I’d expected them to; so many scenes that went just 30 seconds too long.
It’s a not-very-good movie with some very good moments, and that’s what makes it — along with many other Billy Crystal movies — so frustrating.
Billy Crystal is as talented a comic actor as you’ll find, and as director/co-writer he has surrounded himself with a supremely appealing cast, including Girls Trip’s Tiffany Haddish and five-time Tony nominee Laura Benanti, not to mention an array of stellar cameo guests like Sharon Stone, Kevin Kline, Barry Levinson and Bob Costas. His cinematographer, the supremely talented Vanja Černjul (Crazy Rich Asians, The Perfection), has crafted a visual love letter to New York City.
Yet as a film that aspires to be both a broad comedy and pensive human drama, Here Today is neither here nor there.
Crystal stars as Charlie Burnz, a celebrated comedy writer of stage and screen. He’s an elder statesman of the comedy craft, serving as the adult in the room to the young, raucous writing staff of a Saturday Night Live-like cable series. It’s a good gig: The kids, for the most part, respect him; his boss idolizes him; and he actually gets some of his own jokes used during the show.
As we are tipped from the start, however, Charlie has a problem: He is slowly losing a battle with dementia. He still lives on his own, and with the help of his doctor (Anna Deavere Smith) he has charted for himself a daily routine that has, so far, enabled him to hide his condition from everyone he knows, including his two grown children (Benanti and Penn Badgley).
But keeping it all together is a delicate balance for Charlie, and his balance is thrown off when into his life comes a vivacious young singer named Emma (Haddish), who, through a complicated series of events, wins a fancy lunch with Charlie even though she has no clue who he is. As naturally funny as Crystal is, the film’s truly hilarious moments all belong to Haddish — particularly in her first scene, as Emma, having ordered a towering plate of raw seafood (because it’s free) collapses from a seafood allergy. A gifted physical comedian, Haddish plays the scene for all it’s worth and then some. Crystal, wisely, steps back and lets her have at it.
Here Today clicks at moments like that, when the comics get to actually be funny. But this is a Billy Crystal movie and, like Jerry Lewis before him, Crystal seems to have a pathological need to remind us that the clown also knows how to cry.
Ironically, Crystal is not a bad dramatic actor at all. Pull any “serious” clip from his many comedies, from Mr. Saturday Night to My Giant to When Harry Met Sally, and you’ll say, “Yeah, this guy can handle straight material just fine.” In last year’s Standing Up, Falling Down, as an alcoholic dermatologist, he gave the most nuanced performance of his career. The problem is, as a director Crystal doesn’t give his character enough room to breathe between pithiness and pathos; he swings from hilarity to heartbreak with alarming suddenness.
Likewise, the people around Charlie also seem to turn on an emotional dime. Emma goes from aggressively feisty to pussycat meek; his daughter abruptly shifts from resentful to adoring; a co-worker morphs from admiring to back-stabbing — all seemingly in the service of moving the plot along rather than developing their characters.
Much of Here Today takes place against the background of the late-night comedy show. At times those scenes crackle with authenticity, and with good reason: Crystal is a celebrated former SNL cast member; his co-writer Alan Zweibel is one of the show’s original writers; and Haddish is the first black female comedian to host the series. But even here, the film commits a mortal sin, one common to nearly all movies about fictional comedy shows: The show’s supposedly hilarious bits all fall flat. (Films like Here Today should learn from the ingenious strategy Tina Fey utilized on 30 Rock: Although the series was about a late-night comedy show, it never, ever showed an actual skit being performed.)
It tells us something about the graying of America when Hollywood has created an entire Dementia Genre. A quick Wikipedia search yields more than 30 films built around dementia in the past decade or so, with varying results (I’m awaiting a musical: All Singing! All Dancing! All Alzheimer’s!). Lighter touches on the subject are rare, and Here Today deserves every benefit of the doubt for its desire to put a human, sometimes humorous, face on the most dehumanizing of disorders.
One fleeting moment in the film, to my mind, gets everything just right. Charlie and Emma are taking a walk through Manhattan’s Vessel — the Escher-like structure of rising and falling stairways recently built along the river at Hudson Yards. Charlie is excitedly talking about the upcoming bat mitzvah of his granddaughter. “When is it?” Emma asks. “I don’t remember, but it’s soon!” Charlie answers quickly, and he pushes on to more pressing matters. That, in my experience with friends and relatives, is the essence of dementia: No hand-wringing, no thousand-yard stare, just the reality of impenetrable memory loss, the acknowledgement of its existence, and the immediate making-do with the fragments of memory that still remain.
The scene ends with cinematographer Černjul pulling back, and suddenly the complex structure of The Vessel resembles nothing less than the interior of a hollowed-out brain. The two walk their separate ways, neurons heading off in different directions after a momentary encounter.
At that moment, Here Today is at once funny, profound, and painfully humane.
Featured image: Tiffany Haddish and Billy Crystal in Here Today (Photo courtesy Stage 6 Films)
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