Billy Crystal & Tiffany Haddish’s Non-Rom-Com
In a Hollywood career spanning more than 40 years, Billy Crystal has directed just four feature films. While he’s appeared in a broad range of comedies, his rare efforts behind the camera tend to be more narrowly focused on autobiographical stories and a few personal themes. (Even his sports film, 61*, grew out of his childhood love of the New York Yankees.) That’s definitely true of Crystal’s latest movie, Here Today, which feels in many ways like a bookend to his directorial debut, 1992’s Mr. Saturday Night. Both films are about aging comics (played by Crystal) who try to maintain their relevancy in a changing world while they also grapple with the collateral damage their fame took on their families.
There are a few new twists in Here Today, including the fact that this time Crystal’s retirement-age comic is facing a personal health crisis. After a long career writing successful movies and Broadway shows, Crystal’s Charlie Burnz is now the elder statesman on the writing staff of a Saturday Night Live-esque variety show called This Just In. Most of the younger comics at the show dismiss Charlie as a fossil — he uses a typewriter instead of a computer! — but he still makes major contributions to their sketches. Even as he remains a valuable asset to This Just In, Charlie hides the fact that he’s suffering from the early stages of dementia from his co-workers and his family. He walks the same exact route to work every morning so that he doesn’t forget where he’s going. He sometimes slips into vivid flashbacks from his past. And he struggles to finish his passion project, a book dedicated to his late wife Carrie (Louisa Krouse). As Charlie puts it, he’s a writer who’s “running out of words” in extremely literal fashion.
Amidst all of that, Charlie stumbles into a friendship with a young woman named Emma (Tiffany Haddish). She wins a lunch with him at a charity auction — although technically her ex-boyfriend won the auction and after they broke up, she came to the lunch in his place. Her ex is the comedy fan; Emma has never even heard of Charlie. She’s an aspiring singer. As such, the two don’t have much in common, but they make each other laugh during their meal. After Emma has an allergic reaction to some seafood, Charlie brings her to the hospital and pays her medical bills. Then they just start … bumping into each other around New York. Pretty soon, the pair become close friends.
Will they become more? Here Today isn’t a romantic comedy in the strictest sense — call it a non-rom-com — and Crystal seems cognizant of the potential issues around a romance between a 70something comedy writer and the 30something musician. Yet even as the characters remain platonic friends, others keep bringing up the issue. Whenever they’re asked if they’re boyfriend and girlfriend, Charlie and Emma never respond with a definitive no. (“Define ‘boyfriend and girlfriend,’” is the reply to one such question.) It’s as if the film wants to keep us in an awkward form of suspense over where their relationship is going.
Meanwhile, as Charlie works on his book he flashes backs to his earliest meetings with Carrie, who’s played by a woman roughly 45 years younger than Crystal. These scenes are shot from Crystal’s subjective point-of-view, so that we hear him but don‘t see him, while Krouse stares directly into the lens, madly in love with Charlie. It’s a legitimate creative choice — this is a film about a man with dementia getting lost in his memories, after all — but when coupled with the will-they-won’t-they tension between Charlie and Emma, it collectively adds up to a film with some deeply weird May-December vibes.
Haddish is one of the most effervescent actresses in Hollywood, and she brings a lot to Here Today through the sheer force of her warmth and charisma. She and Crystal are good together. It’s very entertaining to watch her suffer through a terrible allergic reaction, and it’s hard not to smile when she repeatedly addresses Charlie as “Old Man.” A key scene takes place at a Burnz family bat mitzvah, which Haddish steals with a swaggering performance of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.” Still, there’s only so much she can do with a non-character like Emma, who does not appear to have any kind of existence outside her relationship with Charlie. She has no family or relationships besides her ex-boyfriend, and she somehow supports herself on what she makes busking with her band. When Charlie needs her help, she drops a potential career opportunity without a second thought. How can she afford to do that? Why would she do that? One wishes Here Today had even a fraction of the interest in her life as it had in Charlie’s.
One also wishes Here Today was remotely funny. It recalls Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a series set in the world of elite television comedians where the show they make, and everyone on it, is never amusing. There’s a sort a turf war in Here Today between Charlie and the younger writers on the This Just In staff who think their material is edgy and cool and his is dated and weak. Yet all the sketches, no matter who supposedly wrote them, sound like they written by the same person — and they’re all utterly devoid of laughs. The mirthless world of This Just In is particularly problematic since Here Today is filled with characters — fans, relatives, co-workers — who only exist within the film to tell Charlie Burnz how funny he is, and how much he inspired them when they were younger. Then we see glimpses of his work — like a movie Charlie wrote that starred Kevin Kline and Sharon Stone — and it’s awful.
Anyone who’s watched a family member suffer from dementia will recognize the painful truths in the scenes about Charlie’s illness. Balancing that kind of heartbreaking tragedy with late-night TV gags is a bold concept that didn’t quite work in execution, despite the fact that Crystal brings a lot of intensity to his climactic scenes with his estranged children (played by Penn Badgley and Laura Benanti). Here Today is too peculiar and heartfelt to be truly bad, and it does make an interesting companion piece to Mr. Saturday Night, with Crystal working through same issues from an older perspective. Together, they feel like the work of an artist baring their soul in a sometimes unpleasant way.
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This article was first published on yusmid.com.