You don't have to look particularly hard to find reasons not to like Billy Crystal's latest film Here Today, a messy little almost weeper and occasional laffer marking Crystal's full-on transition to grandpa roles but with Crystal's inherently likable persona fully intact and the film's overall tone nearly dead-on consistent with most other Crystal motion pictures.
It's true. You wouldn't have to look hard to find the flaws, but we go to movies to be entertained. Don't we? We may find flaws, but we don't really go looking for them. Truthfully, if you're headed into Here Today, or watching it via streaming, the odds are pretty good you want Billy Crystal to be Billy Crystal and you want the film to be entertaining.
So, then. Despite all its flaws, Here Today is an entertaining motion picture.
Crystal is Charlie Burnz, a legendary comic writer whose best days are behind him even as he keeps showing up and trying to keep up with the younger writers and younger comics. He's been around long enough and contributed well enough that he seems to have earned a semi-permanent place at the table even if his occasional contributions largely go by the wayside.
Still, you can see it in his eyes that Charlie still lives for that moment when a joke really works.
He stumbles, not literally, into Emma Payge (Tiffany Haddish), a singer who doesn't really even know his work but won a lunch with him via her ex-boyfriend courtesy of an embarrassing $22 bid at a benefit auction. Embarrassing? Yes, but both are good spirits about it and a comfortable rapport is established that survives a Crystalesque lunch faux pas reminiscent of old Crystal hijinks.
In Hollywood, this kind of set-up typically leads to some uncomfortable rom-com no matter how wide the chasm of relatability or vast the differences. While that uncomfortable possibility is addressed surprisingly believably here, Billy Crystal's far too smart and authentic to go for the cheap laughs in favor of a more meaningful story.
Indeed, Here Today tells a much more meaningful story that made me laugh, made me cry, and made me love both Crystal and Haddish a whole lot more. The film is based on Alan Zweibel's short story The Prize, adapted here by Crystal and infused with Crystal's natural instincts for dramedy. Crystal has always been an actor with a fairly limited range, a range he largely stays within even in this film with the exception of a scene or two of momentary high drama. These scenes, fortunately short-lived, are almost cringeworthy but still essential to the story that unfolds.
Truthfully, I loved Here Today.
It is established early on that Charlie is rather beloved even if his best days are behind him. He's had hit plays, books, and even movies. His life now centers around showing up for This Just In!, an SNL-styled show where he's a senior writer when he can remember what day it is.
Yeah, we get those hints. We know that there's more going on with Charlie.
Here Today is also a reminder, however, that there's something more going on with most of us. There's a life beneath the surface and most of us are just looking for our village where we can show up "as is." Emma and Charlie find that with one another. They're misfit friends who fit together because of what's underneath the surface.
Charlie has others. There's Brad (Max Gordon Moore), Charlie's former underling now running the show who doesn't even have to think about keeping Charlie around. It's not just your "inspiration porn" thing. Charlie contributes in ways hard to recognize yet Brad recognizes them. Brad also gives Charlie the loyalty that Charlie once gave him.
The same is true with Darrell (Andrew Durand), an up-and-coming comic whose insecurities are mentored by Charlie in amazingly touching ways. I loved Durand's work here in his feature film debut. It's filled with humor yet surprisingly honest vulnerability.
Charlie has a village because he's been a village.
Here Today would have been a meaningful motion picture even without the journey into Charlie's cognitive decline, a journey that isn't nearly fleshed out enough other than drawing in the narrative thread of his distracted son (Penn Badgely), always rattled daughter (Laura Benanti), and a granddaughter (Audrey Hsieh) who seemingly wants a relationship with just about anyone who will slow down long enough to listen.
I will say that the granddaughter opens the door to one of Haddish's best scenes.
Then, of course, there is Haddish. The more I see of Haddish the more I love her. She's an immensely talented comic yet also capable of tapping into a tremendous emotional depth. On the surface, you can't begin to imagine why these two would be friends. Haddish, on the other hand, makes it completely and utterly believable.
D.P. Vanja Cernul's work is pristine and engaging throughout. Kent Beyda's editing capitalizes on Crystal's impeccable comic timing while Charlie Rosen's original music is retro-tinged classicism that fits perfectly with the Crystal vibe.
Here Today isn't a perfect film but it is a perfectly enjoyable film. Filled with heart and humor, gentle comic brilliance and genuine emotional resonance, Here Today is a friendly, familiar film much like that village you know you can always call home.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic