Film Review – Here Today
Here Today (2021) attempts to be a sweet and heartfelt look at a friendship in the midst of a serious personal struggle. There are moments where it gets close to succeeding, but then stumbles over cheap melodrama. This is one of those movies where we can feel it trying to force an emotional reaction instead of earning it organically. The comedic and dramatic elements – albeit flashing bits of promise – are jumbled together in a mish mash of conflicting tones. At one point, it’s a serious story about very heavy topics. At another, it’s a screwball comedy. I don’t mind either of those approaches, but they don’t jell together here.
Billy Crystal (who produces, directs, co-writes and stars) is a comedian whose greatest strength is his wit. Whether he is a mopey divorcee in When Harry Met Sally… (1989), an NBA referee in Forget Paris (1995), or a yuppie out of his element in City Slickers (1991), Crystal always comes ready with a witty quip or punchline for any circumstance. Knowing this, it’s strange that he (along with writer Alan Zweibel) would craft a scenario where his biggest talent is muted. He plays Charlie Burns, a once successful comedy and TV writer who is now suffering the early stages of dementia. The man who can write a joke in minutes now has trouble remembering how to get to work, or even the people he talks to in mid conversation.
Nonetheless, Charlie pushes on, working on a variety show where the performers’ awkward delivery gets on his nerves. At home, his children (Penn Badgley, Laura Benanti) are often too busy to see his growing illness. Enter Emma (Tiffany Haddish) a singer who connects with Charlie. Their Meet Cute is anything but “cute,” with Emma meeting Charlie because of an auction she didn’t even participate in and then having an allergic reaction to seafood. Their lunch date ends with her in the hospital and he having to foot the medical bill.
Despite things going haywire at first, Charlie and Emma develop their friendship, and this is where Here Today shows its potential. The narrative works best when Charlie and Emma simply get to know each other through conversation. He tells her about his work and family, and she tells him about her boyfriend and her music. Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish are an offbeat matchup, but both are up to the task bouncing off one another. Charlie and Emma’s relationship is not based on romance, but companionship and understanding. When Emma discovers Charlie’s illness, she becomes a protector for him. It’s these moments, where Charlie and Emma learn about each other and help one another, where the film is at its sweetest.
That sweetness quickly turns sour once Crystal tries to ramp up the emotional stakes. As a director, he is not subtle. When trying to build Charlie’s background, Crystal will often jump into a flashback, highlighting the ups and downs of Charlie’s life. We see images of his wife (Louisa Krause) at their happiest and worst times. Oddly, the cinematography (Vanja Cernjul) captures these sequences directly from Charlie’s point of view. When he – in a flashback – talks to other characters, they look directly into the camera. This upfront and blunt style knocks us off balance, especially since they place the characters in center frame in a close up. The effect is disorienting and off putting. When Charlie’s flashes back to the birth of one of his kids, do we really need to have a front row seat to the action?
The narrative flies off the rails in the third act, when Charlie’s frustrations with his illness, his work, and his past come bursting out. There is an extended sequence in which Charlie goes on an epic rant, yelling and bouncing off the walls because he simply can’t take it anymore. I’m sure this was meant to be mostly comedic, but it feels forced and out of place. As much as I admire Crystal as both a comic and an actor, he put himself in a position that is very difficult to pull off, and I’m not so sure he does it.
Have you noticed I haven’t talked much about Haddish’s character? Despite being credited as the costar, Haddish is clearly playing the backup role here. We don’t see Emma outside of her interactions with Charlie. How does she get along with her family? What is her home like? What does she do when she’s not singing or spending time with Charlie? We get none of this. Her relationship with her boyfriend and her aspirations as a singer have little substance. And her willingness to drop everything to help Charlie feels more like convenient plotting than actual character progression.
The title of Here Today is a play on the phrase “Here today, gone tomorrow.” It’s meant to signify Charlie’s deteriorating memory – what he remembers today can fizzle into nothingness in the future. It’s too bad the movie itself can be described the same way.