Credit: Cara Howe
Blockbuster Beat by Steven Warner Featured Film

Here Today | Billy Crystal

May 6, 2021

Here Today is a baffling, schmaltzy oddball of a film that finds Billy Crystal profoundly out of touch.

There’s been something of a recent resurgence when it comes to yesteryear comedians, as the likes of Bill Murray, Steve Martin, and Martin Short have all found renewed success as yet another generation discovers and embraces these titans of comedy. But among these renaissances, one name remains conspicuously absent, and it isn’t difficult to understand why: it has never really been cool to like Billy Crystal. Sure, he got his big break playing one of American television’s first openly gay characters on the sitcom Soap, which ran from 1977–1981, but that role seemed like more of an anomaly for a comedian whose style was reminiscent of a 1950s Catskills comedian or — dare it be said — vaudeville. Crystal sits firmly in the camp of comics your dad probably loves; he is genial, earnest, and kind-hearted, a man who shies away from using profanity or crude sexuality for an easy laugh — he’s the man you hire to host the Oscars multiple times because of how very, very tolerable he is. Across his career, Crystal has found success by leaning into his persona as the neurotic Jewish everyman, Middle America’s answer to Woody Allen: equally verbose, but less abrasive and more accessible. At his career’s commercial peak, Crystal took the clout he gained from such box office hits as Throw Momma from the Train, When Harry Met Sally…, and City Slickers and cashed it all in for his directorial debut, 1992’s Mr. Saturday Night, a maudlin slice of pap that revealed what happens when Crystal is left to his own devices.

Absent from the big screen for over nine years, Crystal here returns both in front of and behind the camera with Here Today, an utterly bizarre dramedy that once again finds Crystal tapping into his schmaltzy side — with equally disastrous results. A film about a legendary comedy writer suffering from dementia that also features a scene where co-star Tiffany Haddish’s face cartoonishly blows up from a seafood allergy, Here Today is a tonal mish-mash that wants to make you laugh until you cry — and then make you cry for real, because Crystal has feels. Charlie Berns (Crystal) is an icon, a man who has written some of the most beloved films, plays and novels of all-time. He currently writes for This Just In, America’s #1-rated cable comedy show, part of the brilliantly-named The Funny Network. You heard it here first: Billy Crystal certainly understands television today. Through a series of inane plot contrivances, Charlie meets and befriends nightclub singer Emma Payge (Haddish), a woman half his age. Before long, they kind of start a romantic relationship, except not really, because Here Today has no interest in addressing any of the real-world issues that would accompany such a union, much in the same way it doesn’t want to realistically portray the dementia from which Charlie suffers. Crystal and co-writer Alam Zweibel take great pains to both humiliate and hurt Haddish in the early going before a pivotal mid-film bat mitzvah asserts Emma as a free-spirited black woman who can loosen up a bunch of stiff white Jews with a rousing performance of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” a song which Crystal believes every 13-year-old girl in 2021 knows the words to. She then puts her life on hold to take care of Charlie, a man she barely knows, when his illness becomes too much for him to bear alone. She also inspires him to write his memoirs by texting him sassy questions courtesy of a horrifying Memoji of Ms. Haddish.

There is so much going on in Here Today, which feels overstuffed at a soul-crushing two hours. Charlie has a big secret from his past that haunts him to this day, resulting in a troubled relationship with his grown son (Penn Badgley) and daughter (Laura Benanti), and there’s a series of flashbacks involving Charlie’s deceased wife shot entirely from Charlie’s first-person POV that are so cringe-inducing they almost pivot back to maudlin brilliance. Watch as poor actress Louisa Krause is forced to interact directly with the camera, peeping deep into your soul as Billy Crystal’s high-pitched voice fills the soundtrack with salacious double entendres about butter and tar. At one point the film essentially stops dead in its tracks so that a character can deliver a monologue — again, directly to the camera — stating how Charlie — and by extension, Crystal — is a comedic legend, a purveyor of taste who deserves our respect and should not be tossed aside. This is then followed by a scene where Crystal makes the joke, “I’m a terrible dancer. I’m the only one with Mambo insurance!” And of course, every once in a while, dementia will rear its ugly head when it’s convenient to the plot and/or the film needs a jolt of pathos, which, gross. If that’s not enough, at one point Haddish reacts to a thunderstorm by crying and shaking with such sheer realism that you can’t help but anticipate Meryl Streep walking on screen and slow clapping. It would be fair to think that such a dramatic punctuation would be preparing audience members for Emma’s own troubled back story, but it never comes, thus rendering the scene an interlude of pure insanity. As a critic, part of one’s job is to use precise language, to find the exact right words that will help viewers and readers better understand a work and parse the artist’s intent. Here Today is fucking batshit, the work of a talented performer who has seemingly lost all touch with the world around him. See you in another nine years?