When it comes to entertainment careers few have had one better and more diverse than Billy Crystal. He’s found success at nearly every stop whether on Broadway or in Hollywood. He’s done television, movies, stand-up comedy, voice acting, he’s won six Emmys, he’s won a Tony award, and he’s hosted the Academy Awards a whopping nine times. Now he steps back behind the camera for the first time in twenty years with the new film “Here Today”.
The 73-year-old Crystal directs, co-writes, co-produces and stars in this well-intended yet strangely uneven dramedy. He plays Charlie Burnz, an aging comedy writer on the backend of a successful career. Now he writes skits for a New York-based sketch comedy show called “This Just In”. The success of Charlie’s career has come with a personal price, namely his relationship with his architect son (Penn Badgley) and his far more bitter daughter Francine (Laura Benanti). So when not at work he spends most of his time alone in his Brooklyn apartment, still mourning the loss of his wife who has been dead for years and holding on tightly to a crushing secret – he has early-stage dementia.
Through a goofy circumstance too inconsequential to get into here (but that allegedly really happened to co-writer Alan Zweibel), Charlie meets a brash street singer named Emma played by Tiffany Haddish. Going in, the very idea of Billy Crystal teaming up with Tiffany Haddish seemed almost like a gimmick – his quick and grounded wit; her loud and abrasive schtick. Their characters end up forming an unconventional friendship which is the closest we get to a main storyline. The problem is their hard-to-read relationship is never as convincing as it needs to be, and the clashing comic styles of the two stars doesn’t help. At times it’s as if they are working in two different movies.
It’s almost like the filmmakers see the conflict, so they work hard to temper Haddish’s bravado especially in the second half. There are moments when it works, when she puts aside the blaring comic aggression and shows genuine acting chops. But far too often it’s nonsense like busting out singing Janice Joplin at a Bat Mitzvah, rambling about her sexual prowess, or ungainly physical gags such as falling over a row of garbage cans. And while the movie intends something inspiring and thoughtful, you can’t miss the clang of ‘the uncouth and uncultured black woman meets the stuffy upper-class white guy’ running joke. It doesn’t land particularly well.
Yet despite all of that, there are chunks of “Here Today” that work in large part because of Crystal. He serves up plenty of reminders that not only does he have an effortlessly good comic delivery, but he’s also a solid dramatic actor. It’s seen best in some of the MANY side stories. I particularly liked the scenes with Charlie at work, tossing out ideas in the writer’s room, mentoring a young scribe, ranting about an actor’s inflection. And while the dementia angle is a bit messy, there are a couple of moments of real humanity and pathos.
But when you toss so many things out there (aging, dementia, grief, a wacky friendship, a fractured family, life as a comedy writer, etc.) and try to build a story out of it, you have to bring the pieces together at some point. What we end up with is a well-meaning yet mushy and squeaky-clean ending that I really, really wanted to feel. Instead what I felt most was the movie yanking hard enough on my heartstrings to make them snap. I was left thinking that maybe “Here Today” would have played better as a collage of one man’s life. In some ways that’s exactly what it is. If only it didn’t try to be that plus a whole lot more. “Here Today” is now showing in theaters.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS