“Here Today” is the kind of movie that people don’t really make anymore, and by the time it’s over, there’s a good chance that even the most old-fashioned audiences will have made their peace with that. Billy Crystal’s first directorial outing in the 20 years since “61*” debuted on HBO is a downbeat but heartwarming dramedy about the unusual friendship that forms between a widowed Jewish writer (Crystal) and the newly single Black woman whose ex-boyfriend was his biggest fan (Tiffany Haddish).
It’s not quite as retrograde as it might sound from its logline, or as flimsy as it might look from the American Typewriter font used for its opening credits. In a film where several of the major story beats fall somewhere between far-fetched and Tolkien-level fantasy, it’s impossible not to appreciate the raw human texture that Haddish brings to her under-written role.
Ditto the unforced chemistry that she and Crystal spark together, which maintains a natural stability even when the low-stakes narrative around it veers towards melodrama down the home stretch; for better or worse, “Here Today” more closely resembles a James L. Brooks tear-jerker told with all the nuance of “The Upside” than it does a riff on “The Upside” told with all the nuance of a James L. Brooks movie.
It’s also important to note that Crystal and co-writer Alan Zweibel, here adapting the latter’s semi-autobiographical short story “The Prize,” are fully aware that this bittersweet tale about living in the now feels so out of its time. Charlie Burnz is nothing if not a human anachronism — a fact made clear to us by the comedy legend’s current job as a very senior writer at an “SNL”-like TV show that’s otherwise entirely staffed by millennials — and the sense that he belongs to a different era is galvanized in the most brutal way possible by the dementia he’s straining to keep secret from his skeptical colleagues and semi-estranged children. Charlie has been able to keep his symptoms in check with medicines and routines, but his memory is starting to fail, and his mind is often tugged back into the same past that threatens to leave him behind.
When someone buys lunch with him at an auction — the winning bid is $22 — it’s surprising that Charlie actually remembers to go. Even more surprising is that unemployed singer Emma Payge bothers to cash in on her ex’s prize (“The Good Fight” actor Nyambi Nyambi is only afforded a few milliseconds of screen-time as the Burnz superfan who spurs this whole story into motion). She doesn’t know or care who Charlie is, but when life gives you a chance to spite an old flame and eat some free seafood in one fell swoop, you take it. And if you have a severe allergic reaction to shellfish, well, maybe the rich old writer sitting across from you will pay for the four-digit hospital bill that follows.
It’s wild to think that actually happened to founding “SNL” writer Zweibel once upon a time, but just about everything that follows in this movie smacks of pure fiction, from the “slippery when wet” road sign that Emma has tattooed on her ass to the interest she takes in Charlie’s life when his symptoms flare up after a retrospective screening of the famous Kevin Kline/Sharon Stone rom-com he supposedly wrote for Barry Levinson back in his heyday (Crystal calls in enough favors to ensure fun cameos all around). Their friendship blossoms with such a light touch that scenes practically evaporate before your eyes, as Crystal’s unfussy direction and preference for cute zingers over deep laughs allows viewers to sink into the movie like it’s an old couch they just pulled out of storage.
It’s refreshing to see the ever-capable Haddish shine in a more grounded role where she gradually morphs into the straight man, and Crystal finds a certain kind of self-reflexive edge in his performance as Sad Billy Crystal. You can’t even read a typical line of Charlie dialogue without hearing it in his voice (try this: “For me, the great outdoors would be a lot better if it were indoors”).
It’s only a matter of time before “Here Today” starts to feel like an elegy for an entire mode of schtick comedy. The variety show where Charlie works, on the other hand, doesn’t feel outmoded so much as totally alien, as not even Zweibel’s first-hand experience can help this movie create a believable fake sketch show succeed where so many others have failed. A subplot about Charlie taking a protegee under his wing has a demented Nancy Meyers vibe, while a cringe-worthy scene in the middle of a live taping so misapprehends what’s funny that… well, that part actually might be an accurate representation of “Weekend Update.”
Even less credible is Charlie’s relationship with his adult children, which has been strained to the breaking point since their mom died under mysterious circumstances when they were young. For a film so focused on the dangers of succumbing to life’s unpredictability — a film about how a man allowed his entire family to fall apart in the aftermath of one tragic night — “Here Today” can’t recover from how surface-level Charlie’s relationship is with his son (Penn Badgley) and resentful daughter (Laura Benanti). The Burnz drama is a like a dreamcatcher for all of the movie’s worst impulses, from a bat mitzvah scene that quashes the script’s most explicit acknowledgement of race with an impromptu sing-along to a late reveal that leaves you as resentful towards Charlie’s kids as they are towards him.
But the film’s single biggest misstep is in regards to the late Mrs. Burnz. The result of a disastrous choice that ironically stems from Crystal’s only attempt at introducing a modern flourish into this old-fashioned tale, Charlie’s dead wife is played by the excellent 34-year-old actor Louisa Krause, whose entire performance is sprinkled across a variety of flashbacks that are seen through Charlie’s eyes.
The intention is to visualize Charlie’s memories with the same immediacy they have inside his mind, but the effect lands much closer to the look of POV porn (or more generously “Being John Malkovich”) as Krause whispers sweet nothings into the camera lens while Crystal’s 73-year-old voice talks back to her from somewhere off-screen. It’s amusing at best, deeply uncomfortable at worst, and always capable of stopping the movie’s emotional undertow on a dime.
Touching as it can be to see Crystal watch the sun go down on so many different things with just the right amount of wistfulness, it’s hard to embrace a canned “live in the moment and laugh as it goes by” ethos in a movie where even death becomes impossible to take seriously.
Sony Pictures will release “Here Today” in theaters on Friday, May 7.
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.