Movie Review: ‘Here Today’ Is A Manipulative Mess
Director: Billy Crystal
Writers: Billy Crystal, Alan Zweibel
Stars: Billy Crystal, Tiffany Haddish, Penn Badgley, Laura Benanti
Synopsis: When veteran comedy writer Charlie Burnz meets New York singer Emma Payge, they form an unlikely yet touching friendship that kicks the generation gap aside and redefines the meaning of love and trust.
It has been said many times (originally by Roger Ebert) that movies are essentially empathy machines. They make us feel something for completely nonreal people. Well, when a movie works, that is. When they don’t, movies show themselves for what they all are underneath, manipulation. Some films manage to manipulate us without the obviousness and realization that this is happening. Other movies are Billy Crystal’s Here Today.
Here Today is a mishmash of genre, some part comedy, some part family tragedy, some part romance. Shockingly, Crystal as a director and an actor doesn’t have a handle on any of these genres, and the movie becomes an empty exercise rather quickly. Here Today is about a comedy writer, Charlie Berns (Billy Crystal) who has been diagnosed with dementia but is trying to survive without any help. Enter the random connection with Emma Payge (Tiffany Haddish) who has stolen an auction item, lunch with Charlie from her ex-boyfriend, who has cheated on her. It is a cheap way to throw these two together and begins a pattern of Emma mostly being given a personality connected only to men. Haddish does Haddish things, including ordering a giant platter of seafood and having a massive allergic reaction.
Sadly, that lunch scene (up until her face puffs up in said allergic reaction) might be the highlight among the many lowlights of Here Today. There is genuinely enjoyable banter between the two, with Crystal and Haddish trading good natured barbs. But, of course, due to the hamfisted amnesia plot, Crystal must deal with his memory loss and Haddish falls into the caretaker role. Crystal attempts to continue cracking jokes, but honestly, if you’ve seen his older films, you know the bits. There really seems to be no growth left in him as a comedic performer. Although there are those moments of decent interaction between them, it certainly never feels enough for Emma to give up her dream of going on tour with her band to take care of him. But then again, the singer subplot, like most of the movie, feels thrown together in order to give Emma some semblance of a personality.
The script itself, written by Crystal and Alan Zweibel, is almost horrifically bad. There is an arsenal of Chekhov’s guns just waiting to go off, and good god, each and every one of them does. And not a one of them triggers in an interesting fashion. Pretty much what you think will happen, happens. But as tedious as the Crystal and Haddish relationship becomes, it is somehow the best part of the movie.
Charlie is also struggling through being a staff writer at a sketch comedy show, which shows all of the behind the scenes issues of creating funny bits. The big problem here is that distinguishing between what is funny and what is painful is possible because none of it is funny. Here Today tries so hard to be heartwarming that nothing lands. Additionally, the family plot has zero arc. Their relationship seems to change on a dime with little to no buildup. Penn Badgley and Laura Benanti as his son and daughter, respectively, give full effort, but the script gives them little to work with over the excruciating near two hour runtime. Charlie’s granddaughter, Lindsay (Audrey Hsieh) is cute, but to the exclusion of anything else about her character. The film’s problem remains consistent, there are no characters here. Even our protagonist is thinly drawn, only offered shades of grey near the climax, as if filling information they know should be there. Here Today is a first draft.
With a few exceptions, Crystal’s direction is amateurish. He clearly loves New York City, but anyone who has listened to him speak for more than five seconds knows that. The majority of the movie is shot in a straightforward manner, giving nothing to distract from the unfortunate work on screen. However, he does give effort in flashback scenes. Charlie is struck, every now and then, by visions from his past. Many of these are of his deceased wife, Carrie (Louisa Krause). When she appears, it is always shot in soft lighting, highlighting the memories that he is comfortable reliving. She is nearly always kind, borderline ethereal in her goodness. Additionally, he makes the decision to shoot this in a POV style, erasing the need to cast a young Billy Crystal. We experience it with him, and as such, feel the love for her that he does. This only changes when his mind and supposed growth allow him to remember some of the bad times. With this, the lighting changes and becomes harsh as he attempts to come to terms with his mistakes and his loss.
As Here Today spirals to a close, the manipulation becomes as obvious as in any film that I remember. There are lines that we know will come back around to try to make us feel. They do, but we feel nearly nothing. There are arguments that we know will be solved, and, of course, they are. But they all feel empty. And that is what Here Today is, empty platitudes and jokes that neverland. It will leave your conscious mind as soon as the credits roll. From a film perspective, it takes a master manipulator to make us feel genuine care and loss and sadly, Crystal is not even close to this level.