Billy Crystal is a show business legend who has done it all, as they say, but he’d be the first to tell you he isn’t Sir Anthony Hopkins. Nor is Crystal’s new film “Here Today” on a par with Hopkins’ recent Oscar vehicle “The Father,” though the two films have surface similarities in that each tells the story of a gray lion with rapidly accelerating dementia who soon won’t be able to take care of himself.
Sony Pictures presents a film directed by Billy Crystal and written by Crystal and Tiffany Haddish. Rated PG-13 (for strong language, and sexual references). Running time: 117 minutes. Now showing at local theaters.
“The Father” was profound, Shakespearean, jarring to the core. “Here Today,” while it certainly has its moments of true heartbreak, is more of an old-fashioned comedy/drama that spends at least as much time and energy mining laughs as it does with exploring the tragic side of the tale. This is very much a Billy Crystal vehicle — in addition to starring, Crystal co-wrote the screenplay with veteran comedy scribe Alan Zweibel and is behind the camera as director for this first time since the excellent HBO baseball movie “61*” two decades ago — and it has a kind of Neil Simon-esque, show business-y vibe. The laughs come at a rapid-fire pace, but the comedy sometimes veers into hokey, over-the-top set pieces, whether someone is experiencing a sitcom-level reaction to eating shellfish or a bat mitzvah scene gets funky, or at least tries to get funky, to decidedly mixed results.
Director/co-writer Crystal certainly couldn’t find anyone more suited than himself to play an acclaimed veteran comedy writer named Charlie Burnz, who has won Emmys and Tonys and has penned major hit film comedies. (We even see an onstage reunion celebrating the 20th anniversary of a Burnz-written comedy hit, with director Barry Levinson and actors Sharon Stone and Kevin Kline playing themselves.) Now in his 70s, Charlie is still working as a senior writer/consultant on a “Saturday Night Live” type show, and his comedy mind remains sharp and active — but he has to take the exact same walking route to work every day, and he has written the names of family members on Post-It notes next to their photos in his apartment, because he’s been losing his memory and is having more frequent “episodes” by the day.
Enter Tiffany Haddish as the brassy, funny and warmhearted Emma Payge — the kind of scene-stealing role Woody Allen used to regularly insert into his screenplays, usually to great comedic effect but also with a cringe-worthy moment or two, which is exactly what happens here. Emma’s boyfriend worshipped Charlie and bid on lunch with Charlie at a charity auction — but when they broke up, Emma decided to take the lunch, even though she had no idea who Charlie is. This mismatched pair doesn’t become a romantic couple, thank the Lord, but they DO strike up an unlikely friendship that at least seems plausible, thanks to the wonderful comedic chemistry between Crystal and Haddish.
“Here Today” moves along at a brisk pace as Charlie and Emma become increasingly involved in each other’s lives — and then gets more serious as Charlie’s condition worsens and time is running out for him to reconcile with his grown children: son Rex (Penn Badgley) and daughter Francine (Laura Benanti), with Francine still blaming Charlie for the circumstances that led to the tragic death of her mother. Even with all the laughs paving the way, the story reaches a legitimately moving conclusion and leaves us grateful we got to know Charlie Burnz. Now there was a guy who really understood the musical rhythms of comedy.