“Here Today,” written, directed by, and starring Billy Crystal, is a fun, simple comedy-drama that will make you laugh, cry, and want to reach out to your close friends and family.
Crystal plays Charlie Burns, a famous comedy writer quietly suffering from dementia, unbeknownst to his children or colleagues. A chance encounter with an aspiring singer named Emma (Tiffany Haddish), who quickly discerns his condition, inspires a close friendship as she helps him record his family’s story, particularly that of his late wife, in one last book before he loses his memories for good.
Is the film clichéd and predictable? Absolutely. Does it broach any new territory? Not particularly. The film goes exactly where you’d expect after seeing even one heartwarming dramedy about an unlikely friendship, of which there are countless examples. ”Here Today” is far from the best within a subgenre containing such excellent offerings like “Les Intouchables” and “As Good as It Gets,” but what it lacks in originality it certainly makes up for in charm and heart.
The direction is welcomely understated, mostly staying out of the way, allowing the writing and acting to shine. Yet Crystal brings out a handful of flashier tricks. One especially powerful instance sees Charlie lose his composure when his routine, which he maintains religiously to stave off dementia symptoms, is forcibly broken. The background blurs, the camera moves erratically, and focus is maintained on Crystal’s face, brimming with palpable panic.
Crystal and Haddish share an easy chemistry, with their disparate comedic sensibilities playing off each other well. So much of the film rests entirely on their dynamic, and they have a believable relationship which succeeds in the most important (and often failed) task of any relationship-driven film: they genuinely seem to like each other and enjoy the other’s company.
It would have been easy for the film to turn into a romance, but the story is far stronger for keeping things between Charlie and Emma strictly platonic. The love and intimacy they share are beautiful and are treated just as important as the romances of other movies.
Too few films allow men and women to have a close friendship without turning either into a romantic relationship or being plagued by unrequited love, implicitly referenced by the script when nearly every character confuses Charlie and Emma for a couple. Crystal even starred in the definitive film about the impossibility of male-female friendships, “When Harry Met Sally.” “Here Today’s” centering of nonsexual love gives it a unique twist.
Haddish’s typically over-the-top vulgar schtick is substantially toned down, which serves the movie’s tone beautifully. She maintains the high-energy, bold sense of humor her fans would expect, but seems more grounded and genuine than in broader comedic fare. She likewise displays a powerful charisma, particularly when singing, that draws viewers in. There are hopefully more roles like this in the future for her.
Crystal balances his character’s lighthearted and tragic moments with ease and brilliance. Charlie is a complex role, requiring brilliant comedic timing, serious dramatic skill, and a deft ability to effortlessly switch between the two. The character and film have been compared to Crystal’s directorial debut, “Mr. Saturday Night,” but he’s far more likable here.
He handles the nuances of the character with ease, best exemplified by an equally hilarious and heartbreaking scene in which he, fed up by an actor’s repeated odd emphasis on improper syllables, goes on a tirade live on air, hilariously tearing into the comedian and bringing the audience into the condemnation. In the moments after the cameras cut, the horrifying realization sets in that his dementia caused the momentary lapse of impulse control, provoking fear, shame, and despair all gorgeously rendered by both the performance and direction.
The supporting cast is likewise strong, with notable turns by Laura Benanti as Charlie’s embittered daughter and Anna Deavere Smith as his sympathetic doctor. The writers and cast of Charlie’s sketch comedy show (a “Saturday Night Live”-like series, only funny) have bold personalities and excellent senses of humor, making the most out of their underused sequences. Many of the biggest laughs come from the writing and rehearsal scenes.
The only true weak point in the cast was Louisa Krause as Carrie, Charlie’s late wife. Only existing in flashbacks and filmed from his point of view, Carrie’s role in the film had the opportunity to be a creative high point, but Krause’s listless, shallow performance drags her sequences down. She seems like a caricature of a devoted wife stuck among far more engaging characters.
Frustratingly, the movie suffers from poor pacing. The b-plot of Charlie’s work challenges is partially resolved far too early then dropped altogether, leaving several well-developed storylines and intriguing characters unresolved in an unsatisfactory manner. Additionally, the film struggles to provide the various storylines the proper room they need to breathe and fully develop, and falters while attempting to connect the various threats into one central arc. Ultimately, however, the warmth and heartfelt story at the film’s center make up for any structural flaws.
“Here Today” is far from a perfect film, and it will likely soon be forgotten by the cultural consciousness, doomed to blend in with the plethora of incredibly similar movies. Yet, with a sharp sense of humor, a heartfelt story, and strong central performers, the movie will both entertain and move you, and that makes it more than worth watching.