Billy Crystal Dines Out on Old-Fashioned Genres
By Noah Gittell
There’s no reason a Billy Crystal movie should be good in 2021. Three decades ago, he was famous for doing two things nobody does anymore, starring in blockbuster studio comedies and hosting the Oscars. It’s fair to say that his time has passed, but Crystal didn’t get the memo. He keeps churning out direct-to-VOD movies every couple of years, and with “Here Today,” he has finally hit on a winning formula: Give the people what they used to want. “Here Today” is a throwback in every way, reviving two long-forgotten movie genres — the tearjerker and the Borscht Belt comedy. For me, it was like returning to my childhood home to sleep in my old bed.
Even the name of Crystal’s character, Charlie Burns, seems designed to remind nostalgic viewers of his most iconic role, Harry Burns in 1989’s “When Harry Met Sally”. Charlie is an aging comedy writer who, following a successful career in film and theater, now serves as the elder statesman on the staff of a “Saturday Night Live”–esque sketch show. He meets Emma (Tiffany Haddish), a jazz singer, when she shows up in place of her comedy nerd ex-boyfriend for a lunch he bought with Charlie at a celebrity auction. She has never heard of him, but she’ll take a free lunch.
It’s never quite clear whether Charlie and Emma are just friends or if something more romantic is afoot, and it’s refreshing how little pressure the film feels to define their relationship. The circumstances of their initial lunch hardly qualify as a meet-cute, and as their relationship progresses, the screenplay by Crystal and Alan Zweibel eschews typical rom-com contrivances (they are just friends, but it feels like a romance) and instead simply puts them together and asks us to accept that. Their chemistry is so winning that no one will complain. Crystal gets off his share of one-liners — “I’m a really dangerous dancer. I’m the first person ever to have mambo insurance.” — while Haddish gets to sing, crack wise, and look adoringly at Crystal.
Perhaps because it was co-written and directed by Crystal, it should come as no surprise that he gets all its best moments, but its relative disinterest in Emma is a nagging flaw; we know that she has an ex-boyfriend who cheated on her and a career that’s just starting to take off, but these details exist only to set up later plot twists. We never get the sense the film is interested in her, and Haddish, despite all her charisma, is not much interested in character-building. Not that it would matter.
No, “Here Today” is hyper-focused on Charlie, who has more than enough going on to fill its two-hour runtime. He’s struggling with the early stages of dementia, while trying to hold onto his job, finish a novel, and resolve some emotional issues with his grown children before it’s too late. It’s a lot to juggle, and it often feels as if it’s Crystal — not Charlie — who is working with end-of-life urgency. Perhaps because it’s the least sentimental, the show biz material works the best, with Crystal, who spent a year on “Saturday Night Live”, displaying some sharp insights into the daily grind and backstage politics of sketch comedy. His frustration with a performer who consistently mispronounces names builds to a glorious comic payoff.
The film’s most sharply observed material explores the ways a comedy writer might use jokes to deal with his deteriorating condition. At a panel discussion celebrating the anniversary of a film he wrote, Charlie turns his inability to remember the names of his famous collaborators — Barry Levinson, Sharon Stone, and Kevin Kline, briefly playing themselves — into a running bit. It’s hilarious and terribly sad at once.
Still, all subplots fall by the wayside for the emotional finale that finds Charlie confronting the demons of his past and working to reunite his broken family. It’s tear-jerking of the highest order, and a time machine back to the days when “Terms of Endearment” and “Ordinary People” were considered the pinnacle of cinema. This isn’t a slight; it’s a major achievement to recreate genre conventions that have been out of style for decades. Anyone under the age of 40, however, might find themselves wondering what the hell is going on.
“Here Today” will be released in theaters on May 7.