There’s a very pleasing moment, one of many in Here Today, right around the middle where Billy Crystal’s decorated comedy writer character Charlie Berns is sharing a sidebar with a fledgling new talent named Darrell, played by Andrew Durand in his film debut. In a scene that could very well echo or mirror the gap of the stature between the two actors themselves, Berns is trying to help the young man discover a little more depth in his material with the notion that “comedy is encouragement” and that there’s a “music” to it. Like the wily sage he is, Crystal hammers those thoughts home with what is very likely his real-life philosophy on comedy and passion which is to “take the truth and make it more interesting.” ‘
Every syllable of that layered credo is the golden truth. To hear them come from an icon like Billy Crystal, directing his first film in 20 years, only polishes their convincing luster. Right in line with the energy of encouragement, there’s a generosity that comes from that conversational moment, as well as others, that completely fill and then lift Here Today. Comedy gives more than it takes. When people work to shape and dispense it together, that unified encouragement only multiples.
Within the movie, the themes all surround help that comes from lifted spirits found in many walks of life, both personal and professional. On the performance side, the material is solid enough to matter more than mere bits, yet light enough to spread its wealth of charm. No one is scene-stealing because no one has to, and that’s quite a tall order with the presence of Tiffany Haddish sharing the billing. Everyone is making the same music, so to speak, with Billy conducting every measure.
With a daily routine and walking commute committed to strict verbalized memory, Charlie Berns makes his way to his typewriter desk and emeritus seat in the writing room of a late night sketch comedy show next to his top protege Brad (Max Gordon Moore, in only his second film) who has become the lead producer. While senior in age, Charlie is still Brad’s trusted sounding board for what works and what doesn’t, on paper, on camera, and in-person.
In a chance lunch meeting stemming from a lowly charity auction prize of meeting Charlie, the minor celebrity meets Emma Page (Haddish), a talkative singing busker who has no idea of his notoriety and career accomplishments. With her “old man” pet name ending her lines of compliments and chaffs, Emma hangs around and earns an amusing friendship with Charlie, one free of romantic expectations and brimming with good company.
The uncommon pairing of Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish in Here Today is a merger of comedic racers with different rumbling engines. Crystal’s illustrious quick wit is the refined smoothness of a classy sports car you didn’t hear coming. Haddish is just as improvisational and fast, only she’s normally known as the roaring motorcycle turning heads and blaring eardrums. They have a reply for everything. In their own ways and representing different eras, neither one of them misses their chances to tack on punchlines or retorts to their banter, without a wasted millisecond of effect, something that had to keep film editor Kent Beyda (Dude, Where’s My Car, Innerspace) on his splicing toes to nail the right timing.
Underneath Charlie’s high standing as a comedy creator, he’s also the father of two adult children, Rex (Easy A’s Penn Badgley) and Francine (busy TV actress Laura Benanti), and a doting grandfather to Lindsay (Audrey Hsieh, also in her feature debut). Over the years, while being consumed by work during the peak of his career and the tragedy of losing their mother at a young age, the family bonds have grown weaker. This weighs on the man heavily through repressed denial of something larger going on.
As we see and observe more of Charlie Berns and the curious Emma, it doesn’t take long to notice little slips in memory, coupled with not-so-little flashes of frightening memories. Through POV visions, Charlie re-narrates poignant moments of his courtship and marriage to his young wife Carrie (Louisa Krause of The Girlfriend Experience). Sure enough, these drops and spikes are a form of dementia. Now faced with a rapidly closing window of time to remember the good times, Charlie sets out to write his memoirs in tribute to his late wife “before his words run out.”
In another backstage discussion, Billy’s character tells how he loves the great feeling when a joke hits. Get ready for that feeling, only between your rib cage instead of outside of it while watching this movie. Written by Crystal and former original Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel from the latter’s own short story, Here Today wasn’t written and doesn’t preen for high hilarity and big gags for cheap laughs. Even while emulating the competitiveness of a sketch comedy braintrust setting and tossing in a few cameos from Sharon Stone, Kevin Kline, and Barry Levinson playing themselves, scenes stay small for the most part (save for a silly shellfish allergy introduction) to never over-expand beyond the reach of central figure Charlie. Here Today is something mirthful and soul-stirring at the same time, and, boy, do they nail it.
Even with the dramatic topic of dementia on the table, the aim of Here Today is still the encouragement of comedy, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold. Once again, Crystal and company are here to make different music, something the actual score punctuates as well. The muted trumpet and soft percussion jazz stylings of Charlie Rosen, in his first feature score, convey the cheer battling the grim given circumstances. Though the bar is low, this is easily the best film work Tiffany Haddish has ever done and, Anthony Hopkins be damned for The Father, Billy Crystal offers plenty of conviction with his own award-worthy portrayal of the fears and fallibilities of memory loss.
After beginning with one, I’ll leave you with one more winning exchange from Here Today. When Charlie is discussing his newest diagnosis with his neurologist, played by West Wing and Nurse Jackie cast member Anna Deavere Smith, she tells him “this is no time for jokes.” He quickly fires back how it’s “the perfect time for jokes,” and how he can’t let those be taken from him next. Now, gallows humor can be undoubtedly blunter than a rusty hammer. However, emanating from the twinkling grace of Billy Crystal, grabbing on to life’s vibrancy feels as special as it does comical with his guiding touch.