Imagine The Father if Anthony Hopkins’ character was a joke-telling comedy machine spewing out one-liners. That’s the net effect of Billy Crystal’s new directorial effort (arriving 20 years after his last, 61*), which he also co-wrote and stars in. Attempting to blend a poignant portrait of a man entering the early stages of dementia, a feel-good story about an unusual friendship and copious doses of comic shtick, Here Today doesn’t fully succeed in any department. But it does provide some alternately amusing and touching moments, thanks largely to the heartfelt performances by Crystal and his co-star Tiffany Haddish.
The comedy-drama, inspired by a semi-autobiographical short story written by Crystal’s frequent collaborator (and co-screenwriter) Alan Zweibel, revolves around a character tailor-made for the veteran star’s talents. He plays Charlie Burnz (even the name sounds vaudevillian), an aging comedy writer who serves as a sort of elder statesman on the writing staff of a Saturday Night Live-style sketch comedy show. Charlie’s condition is hinted at in the film’s opening moments, when he’s shown carefully using simple memorized instructions to venture from his home to his workplace.
Taking the idea of “meet cute” to the extreme, the story kicks into gear when Charlie goes to lunch with the winner of a charity auction who, as he learns to his chagrin, paid a mere $22 for the privilege. It also turns out that his dining companion, Emma Payge (Haddish), an aspiring singer, didn’t even win the prize herself, but co-opted it out of spite after discovering her boyfriend cheating on her. The meal eventually turns disastrous when she suffers a severe allergy attack after eating a giant shellfish tower and Charlie has to take her to the hospital and winds up paying her medical bills.
The scene is apparently based on a true incident in Zweibel’s life, but the way it’s played here gives a quick indication that subtlety will not be the film’s forte. After the allergy attack kicks in, Emma doesn’t just swell up and have difficulty breathing. Instead, her face instantly becomes horribly distorted, and her comically garbled attempts at speaking sound like Bill Cosby performing his classic “Dentist” routine.
Crystal’s irresistible impulse to go for big laughs inevitably gives the film a schizophrenic quality from which it never recovers. The unlikely platonic friendship that develops between the pair (they do spoon at one point, but thankfully that’s as far as it goes) is depicted in such scenes as their visiting Madame Tussauds, providing the two stars the opportunity to pose with a variety of wax figures while exchanging one-liners as if competing in a joke-off. At another point, Charlie brings Emma as his date to his granddaughter’s bat-mitzvah. She quickly enlivens the stodgy affair with her sheer lifeforce, getting the elderly attendees to dance wildly as she performs a down-and-dirty rendition of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.” (Emma’s repertoire is strangely retro, perhaps reflective of the fact that the character was created by two elderly men. At another point in the film, she sings Fats Waller’s “Your Feet’s Too Big.”)
Many of the dialogue’s gags are funny, especially as delivered by such pros as Crystal and Haddish. The former displays his decades-honed, pitch-perfect timing and inflections, especially as compared to a performer on the sketch comedy show who consistently places the wrong emphases on words, much to Charlie’s consternation. Charlie’s growing anger leads to one of the film’s more entertaining, if improbable, scenes, when he launches an impromptu on-air tirade against the offending cast member that delights the show’s studio audience and becomes a viral sensation.
At other times, you can feel the screenplay straining too hard for Neil Simonesque rat-a-tat jokes, as when Charlie, invited by Emma to dance, informs her, “I’m a very dangerous dancer. I’m one of the few people who have mambo insurance.” You can almost hear the silent rimshot.
Haddish, faced with the challenging task of going toe-to-toe with a comedy legend, wisely underplays, giving one of her more restrained performances that gets the desired laughs while effectively mining the serious moments as well.
The dramatic segments are even more forced, especially the POV flashbacks in which Charlie recalls his courtship and marriage with the beautiful Carrie (Louisa Krause), whose tragic untimely death continues to haunt him. While the stylistic choice eliminates the need for Crystal to be awkwardly de-aged or substituted with a younger actor, it also proves alienating.
Everything about the film, which runs a little under two hours but feels longer, registers as vaguely overstuffed, down to the needless celebrity cameos including Itzhak Perlman performing an impromptu violin solo on the balcony of his apartment, and Kevin Kline, Sharon Stone and director Barry Levinson playing themselves taking part in a panel discussion in which Charlie’s deteriorating mental state becomes painfully evident. The brief appearances smack more of Crystal’s well-stocked rolodex than dramatic necessity. Meanwhile, such supporting players as Penn Badgley, Laura Benanti and Anna Deveare Smith are unable to make very much of their underwritten roles.
Here Today certainly means well, delivering inspiring messages about living in the moment and savoring the meaningful relationships that make life worth living. It’s a hard film to dislike. But it’s also one that, much like Charlie’s fading memories, won’t linger very long either.
Production companies: Astute Films, Face Productions, Big Head Productions
Distributor: Stage 6 Films
Cast: Billy Crystal, Tiffany Haddish, Penn Badgley, Laura Benanti, Louisa Krause, Anna Deavere Smith, Nyambi Nyambi
Director: Billy Crystal
Screenwriters: Billy Crystal, Alan Zweibel
Producers: Fred Bernstein, Billy Crystal, Dominique Telso, Alan Zweibel, Tiffany Haddish
Executive producers: Rick Jackson, Claudine Marrotte, Samantha Sprecher
Director of photography: Vanja Cernjul
Production designer: Andrew Jackness
Editor: Kent Beyda
Costume designer: Cynthia Flynt
Composer: Charlie Rosen
Casting: Tara Rubin