A movie co-starring Tiffany Haddish and Billy Crystal seems like it could go one of two ways, inspired or disastrous. Crystal even directs, in his first feature since 61*, in 2001. Something had to bring him out of 20-year hiatus, right?
Weird as it is on paper, Here Today, it turns out, is neither a memorable embarrassment nor an underhyped masterpiece. It’s more like a solid proof-of-concept for how great a non-Woody Allen Woody Allen movie could be, should that non-Woody Allen not be Billy Crystal next time.
I’m sorry, I don’t mean to bash Billy Crystal. I have nothing against the man and he does so many things right here. Though he does give the impression of someone who can’t be critical enough when he needs to be. Here Today is, ironically, named after a song Paul McCartney wrote about John Lennon. Knowing that, it’s easy to think of Billy Crystal as the McCartney to Woody Allen’s Lennon — the more ingratiating, less problematic version; a brilliant craftsman who generally seems like a happier person, though that same ingratiating quality can turn grating to some. Here Today is a sweet premise and a compelling story that maybe needed a director who would’ve toned down rather than played up its schmaltzier elements.
Written by veteran comedy writer Alan Zwiebel (Its Garry Shandling’s Show, SNL) Billy Crystal stars as Charlie Berns, a legendary-ish comedy writer who serves as the elder statesman on a sketch show, mentoring comedy writers half his age more than he actually writes. Presumably, he’s sort of a stand-in for Zweibel himself. Charlie Berns also has one big problem: he’s developed a rare form of dementia and hasn’t told anyone about it yet.
One day after work, Charlie has a lunch date with Emma Payge (played by Haddish) a fan who has won him in a charity auction. Or at least, her ex-boyfriend did, and now she’s living it up at a free lunch with some old white guy she’s never heard of. It’s the perfect New York comedy writer meet-cute, a setup that’s a little constructed, a little contrived, but creative and clever enough that you don’t mind. It works the same way good jokes work and feels like a veteran joke writer doing what he knows.
Then Emma discovers she’s allergic to shellfish and Here Today goes full Nutty Professor, with Haddish shouting Borscht Belt one-liners through giant lip prosthetics. All of a sudden it feels like there should’ve been an adult on the set.
This becomes a pattern in Here Today, in which an intriguing premise offers a tantalizing hook and leads to some interesting scenes, though the execution of many make you wish they were just a little less hammy, a little less hacky. Charlie Berns and Emma Payge quickly develop a sweet, unorthodox friendship, even if she feels like a gender-swapped version of Sinbad in House Guest at times, the manic pixie dream girl meets the boisterous black person who teaches the whiteys to loosen up. Luckily House Guest was fun and Haddish is likable enough that she can actually pull this off.
The non-lecherous, May-December New York thing Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish have going here is surprisingly compelling, a glimpse at what a sanitized Woody Allen movie might look like. Interestingly, one of Here Today‘s recurring motifs is Charlie Berns rejecting younger writers’ too “risqué” jokes, including one about “a Rottweiler’s balls” (which was actually funny). “Sure, they’ll laugh, but will it be the right kind of laugh?” Berns asks, in a scene in which Berns comes off pedantic in a way that doesn’t seem intentional.
Here Today also fails at the one thing Woody Allen consistently tended to get right: the performances of the female principals. While Haddish does wonders with what could’ve been a lame role, there’s also Charlie Berns’ dead wife, Carrie, played by Louisa Krause, who appears to us in Charlie’s first-person flashbacks. Acting directly to a camera admittedly seems much harder than acting with another person, but Carrie treats Charlie (and us) more like small children than an adult humans, telegraphing every emotion and overly ingratiating in a slightly unctuous way. It’s something Crystal himself can also tend towards, raising the question of whether this was a matter of direction. In any case, it’s an important character and it just plain doesn’t work.
Likewise, Charlie Berns’ daughter, Francine (Laura Benanti) has been written as a little uptight, presumably as a foil for Haddish’s “outrageous” Emma, but she’s so easily scandalized that she comes off both obnoxious and not believable.
It’s a symptom of Here Today‘s larger problem: Crystal’s inability to decide how much is too much. Even the ending suffers, the film sort of lingering upon the stage a little too long, drawing out a conclusion that could’ve been sweet but instead comes off saccharine. And yet, there was something here, if imperfectly delivered. It deserves credit for at least making us wonder what if.