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'Here Today' Review: Crystal passes the comedy torch to Haddish, next generation's queen

Tiffany Haddish proves more than capable of holding her own opposite comedy veteran Crystal in this sometimes persistently charming film about love and legacies.

Street singer Emma (Tiffany Haddish) and venerated comedy writer Charlie (Billy Crystal) strike up a unique friendship after she wins lunch with him at a celebrity auction in 'Here Today,' cowritten and directed by Crystal.
(Image: © Sony Pictures)

Our Verdict

Even if some of Crystal's humor is starting to age a bit, Haddish brings real freshness and unpredictability in this unique May-December friendship.

For

  • 🔸 Haddish continues to prove how versatile and appealing she can be on screen in a role that isn't always given enough depth.

Against

  • 🔸 First-person flashbacks to Charlie's relationship with his late wife saddle the film with melodrama and mystery it doesn't need.

As May-December relationships go, few seem more unexpected than between Tiffany Haddish and Billy Crystal. Admittedly, they do enjoy some vocational overlap, but directing her and himself in the new film Here Today, Crystal at least has the good sense to recognize that they’re better as friends than anything else, even if he does fire a few comedic broadsides about the possibility of a romantic entanglement, shrewdly all at his own expense. To that definitively unsexual end, he and cowriter Alan Zweibel mine that juxtaposition for some great laughs and more effective sentiment than one might expect — albeit while flirting dangerously close with “magical person of color” clichés. Meanwhile, Haddish continues to be her radiant, irresistible self with a character it’s easy to see why anyone, much less with Crystal’s comedic chops, would want to spend time with, in a story that undercuts itself when straining into melodrama rather than simply following through on its intriguing premise.

Crystal plays Charlie Berns, a veteran writer on a “Saturday Night Live”-esque sketch comedy show who’s wrestling with the early stages of dementia. When a fan wins a private lunch with him at a celebrity auction, he’s surprised when a street singer named Emma (Haddish) shows up instead, stealing her ex’s prize in revenge for cheating on her. But after she experiences an allergic reaction to shellfish, Charlie accompanies her to the ER to guarantee her well-being, eventually paying her medical bills. As he wrestles with the challenges of maintaining and memorizing his daily schedule, not to mention concealing his condition to colleagues and especially his son Rex (Penn Badgely) and daughter Francine (Laura Benanti), Emma enters his life — first promising to repay him for her hospital care, then as a friend and companion as his condition slowly worsens.

With his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah coming up, Charlie agreed to help her come up with some funny jokes for the ceremony, but that also forces him to speak more frequently with Francine, who’s still resentful about his mistreatment of their late mother Carrie (Louisa Krause), not to mention the younger women he dated after she died. But with a limited reserve of mental clarity that’s rapidly deteriorating, Charlie seeks Emma’s help to recall memories of Carrie and his children’s upbringing before they are lost permanently because of his dementia. He starts bringing her to family events, prompting a lot of speculation about the nature of their relationship, and causing more conflicts in a family already divided by others that remain unresolved after many years.

Watching this late-stage Crystal movie (which he not only stars in, but directed and cowrote), it feels like the actor and comedian’s talents and especially his mannerisms and tics have been boiled down to their most concentrated form — and at the heart of them, he is relentlessly self-ingratiating. It’s been a few decades since he really stepped outside of his comfort zone in a major role, and he’s so cozy here that you occasionally wish he’d try to be less cute and a little more realistically abrasive, especially since his style is peppered with so many mean-adjacent jokes at other people’s expense. Even without his character’s advancing dementia, a story like this requires most of the people in his life to either ignore his cantankerous reactions, filter them through an historic pedigree or smile obliviously while he reacts with humorous frustration at situations he doesn’t like. Of course, one supposes that with rapid fire wit like his, why not make a few well-constructed jokes about, say, Emma’s repeated interruptions while they order at a restaurant, especially when (again) they’re mostly funny, and seldom rise to the level of “mean.” But everything in the movie feels like it’s got lane bumpers on it to avoid really finding moments of deeper realism, much less momentary discomfort.

Unfortunately, the worst offense the movie commits is by trying to capture Charlie’s memories of his late wife Carrie in first-person recollections so hagiographic that they make a third-world dictator’s memoirs seem honest and incisive. Through one sequence after another, she calls him by his first name, smiling beatifically whether he’s making romantic overtures or helping her deliver a baby in the Museum of Natural History, and has no real identity except as a cornerstone of the identity he is afraid to lose — and of course a fulcrum for conflict in his relationship with his children. A bit like a modern-day final chapter in the stories he told in his directorial debut Mr. Saturday Night, Charlie’s success reverberates only through his failure with the most important relationship of his adult life; but in that film, we at least got to watch the real courtship and connection the main character developed with his sainted wife. Here, she’s the idyllic gif of a perfect spouse, grinning irresistibly at each of his punch lines.

Conversely, Haddish continues to prove that she can liven almost any scene in which she appears, bringing an authenticity to every moment whether she’s talking about blowing Charlie’s back out in bed or offering him a coaxing, sympathetic ear to help him navigate a world that’s growing increasingly unfamiliar. Even if she’s entirely too available to believe (having no other acquaintances than a cheating ex, and dropping her life to help him once he’s formally diagnosed with dementia), Haddish gives their scenes together both a compelling jolt of energy and a lived-in familiarity; you feel like you’re watching two A-list comedians of their respective generations spar and collaborate, and she and Crystal make a very good team.

The story’s hard pivot into uncovered secrets and family drama undercuts what could have been a bittersweet story of generational friendship, but as a whole, Crystal’s latest is, as he no doubt engineered it to be, persistently delightful, even if you wish that Emma had a greater identity than as a support system and comedic sounding board for Charlie. Ultimately, Here Today serves as a reminder of Crystal’s strong, consistent instincts not just as an actor but a storyteller, even as it pays unofficial homage to Haddish as a comedian and actress inheriting a mantle that may seem surprising given their difference, but one she’s more than capable of carrying forward. This kind of old-man comedy doesn’t especially seem like the kind of movie that Haddish would want to make, but if this heralds those possibilities after a few more decades with her as a movie star, I’m all for it.