One of the hardest things to do in pop culture is to depict pop culture itself. It’s surprisingly tough to describe, say, a great actor’s work or the magnum opus of an artist the audience is repeatedly told was brilliant. How do you accurately capture the nuances and natural power of great art? It’s been done before, like the appropriately peppy one-hit-wonder in That Thing You Do! or the eponymous picture of Dorian Gray, both of which the audience fully believes when they are told by the narrative of their excellence, albeit in very different ways. Depicting comedy is maybe the most arduous version of this. Even the funniest people alive stumble when recreating that in a fictional framework. Just ask Aaron Sorkin about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, or Billy Crystal, the writer, director, and star of Here Today.
For decades, Charlie Burnz (Crystal) was one of the top comedy writers in the game, a widely celebrated genius who wrote Tony-winning Broadway plays and seminal movies that receive screenings at the Lincoln Center. Now in his winter years, he writes for a fratty comedy sketch show that feels like Saturday Night Live if every part was written by Colin Jost. It’s not especially funny, even when the on-set audience laughs, and the viewer is supposed to smile politely as Charlie does. This silent battle between the old guard of comedy and the bright young bros, who love jokes about Stephen Hawking, positions Charlie as being mostly in the right. Yes, he’s slowed down because of health issues that include oncoming dementia, but he still fires off one-liners that make others guffaw with laughter. When we see a clip from a film he wrote, starring Kevin Kline and Sharon Stone (playing themselves?!) directed by the also legendary Barry Levinson (also playing himself?!), it’s hardly A-Grade stuff, and that’s a problem when the viewer is constantly told about the irrefutable brilliance of Charlie Burnz.
While grappling with all this, he meets Emma (Tiffany Haddish), a singer who has dinner with him as part of a charity auction. She has no idea who Charlie is, as she’s only there to spite her ex, who was a big fan. Nonetheless, Emma instantly warms to Charlie and his humor. The pair strike up a friendship wherein they make one another laugh and Emma provides much-needed stability once Charlie’s dementia advances. He feels guilty about his semi-estrangement from his adult children (played by the bored Penn Badgley and the always excellent Laura Benanti), so Emma becomes the kind and encouraging voice he needs. It’s the age-old opposites attract story, although here, at least it’s not a romance. Well, kind of. Even they don’t seem to know what’s going on between them.
This exemplifies a big problem with the narrative of Here Today. It feels like two movies squashed together: The Woody Allen-esque story of New York comedy writers (complete with jazz-inflected score), and the heart-warming buddy dramedy about a mismatched couple and the joy they bring one another. The former means that we spend a lot of the latter hearing Tiffany Haddish tell Billy Crystal how funny he is, even though she’s one of the most hilarious women on the planet and is in fine bombastic form here. As Emma, Haddish is treading familiar territory with another unashamedly unruly woman to add to her collection. It’s not hard to see why anyone would be won over by her, even if she leaves a quiet trail of devastation behind her. Crystal clearly enjoys riffing with Haddish, and the best scenes come when the two of them play off one another in scenes with nothing to do with the wider story. They pay a visit to Madame Tussauds and mock the waxworks in their trademark styles. The actors are obviously enjoying themselves, and that old/new comedy dynamic feels far more natural here than whenever Charlie is offering notes to wide-eyed Harvard grads from his typewriter. Still, it’s sad that Crystal doesn’t really give Haddish much to do beyond being Charlie’s person. As appealing as she is within those confines — she is naturally a very warm presence with major best-friend energy — it’s hard not to see Emma being entirely categorized as the ‘helpful Black lady’ with a sprinkling of manic pixie on top.
The dramedy aspect tilts fully into drama by the second half, as Charlie’s dementia takes grip and forces him to take note of his past before it slips away. It’s been a surprisingly busy year for stories about dementia, from the devastating Oscar-winner The Father to the speculative melancholy of Little Fish to Viggo Mortensen’s personal directorial debut Falling. There’s never exactly been a shortage of such stories in film, whether it’s Still Alice or Iris or Away From Her, all of which tried to grapple with the frustration and isolation of losing oneself to the cruelest of conditions. Most stories portray this reality from an outsider perspective, or focus on the memory loss aspect over other, less cinematically ready symptoms.
One of the reasons The Father was so effective as a dementia story was that it allowed the audience to see the protagonist’s unvarnished confusion and fury over living with a disease he never fully understood or accepted. Here Today has less lofty ambitions. Here, Charlie’s dementia is earnestly depicted but still adheres to narrative convenience. We see the obvious frustration for a writer to lose his words and timing, but it’s all handled with a light, even breezy touch that doesn’t invite the audience to linger on the reality of his future. I’m not saying the movie had to go full Haneke or anything, but that tonal tightrope Crystal tries to walk perhaps required more than some one-liners. Charlie says he’d rather die than lose his sense of humor, which is a driving force for his work (as well as Crystal’s, in many ways). Yet, the most effective scene comes when he does just that and nobody around him knows how to react.
The sharpness of such moments feels dishearteningly undercut by the neatness with which the story wraps up. Emma ends up being reduced to Charlie’s family’s helpful guide, so not only is the familial strain cleared up in a heartbeat but Emma herself is denied a conclusion to her own depressingly thin arc. It wholly deflates any emotional payoff that Here Today was aiming for.
I can’t blame Crystal for wanting to tell this story, and he is solid in the lead role. The intentions are good, but the execution is lacking with Here Today. With ideas this hefty and seemingly mismatched, a sturdier hand was needed. A light touch is often appreciated, but now and then it can veer too quickly into frivolity, and such is the fate of Here Today.
Here Today will be released in theaters on May 7.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Header Image Source: Stage 6 Films