In an era of moviemaking when films are pigeonholed by genre, scale and scope, it’s nice to be reminded that there’s beauty in the middle. Short scenes can get big laughs, small stories can have big heart. In Here Today, director Billy Crystal and co-writer Alan Zweibel bring back a bygone era of storytelling, when comedy and tragedy are best at their subtlest.
Set in New York, comedy legend Charlie Burnz (Crystal) goes to work at his late-night cable sketch show, acting as the honorary “mentor” to young and mostly smarmy writers. When he encourages them to aim higher than profanity or gross-out schtick, they think his institutional memory is more or less useless and as outdated as his typewriter. Herein lies the heart of the story – the wisdom that comes with age, the precious gift that is memory. In Charlie’s world, he’s losing both.
Based on Zweibel’s short story “The Prize,” Here Today sets up Charlie’s journey with dementia a few stages in – he knows what’s going on, he knows he’s slipping and he’s writing a book dedicated to his late wife and emotionally estranged children because of it. That’s when he meets his saving grace in free-spirited singer, Emma Payge (Tiffany Haddish). Despite the age gap, their unexpected and unlikely friendship becomes the driving force of the film; both funny and not, complicated and not. Haddish uses her tried-and-true brand of humor, but delves deeper into making the character of Emma a realistic one. She’s a good, young soul who happens to connect with a good, older one; an atypical dynamic rarely shown on screen. While the group of millennial comedy writers didn’t fully understand Charlie, it’s nice to see someone who does – better yet, a female almost half his age.
In addition to an endearing Haddish, familiar actors round out the cast, with Anna Deveare Smith as Charlie’s doctor and Laura Benanti and Penn Badgley as his grown children. But it’s Crystal, himself, who is more engaging with an emotional monologue than any flashback could accurately evoke. It’s the comedy and tragedy he wears on his face, subtly delivering a funny one-liner and, in the next second, breaking your heart. From a directing standpoint, too, Crystal makes it work. New York is the third most-important character, here, with breathtaking wide shots of a cityscape that fills the frameline. It’s a love letter to New York or at least feels like one.
Perhaps it’s familiarity or intuition, but the ways in which the writers seem to draw from the well of personal experience breathes genuine life into fictional characters. Whether it was Zweibel’s experience writing for Saturday Night Live or Crystal’s similar history of meeting his wife at the beach or getting the dreaded knock at the door after fighting with a loved one, moments in Here Today feel supremely human. Maybe it’s years of my family reading Crystal’s memoirs or crying at 700 Sundays or crying laughing at the Chicago Theatre. Or perhaps it’s just good writing.
As we slowly return to the movies, my hope is that there are more films like the one Crystal and Zweibel put together. I hope they’re full of dimensional characters that make us laugh, cry and think more deeply about caring for someone and caring about them. I hope they make us appreciate the beauty of the people and places around us – while they’re here, today.