About two weeks ago, a surprise trailer dropped for Here Today, a rommy-comedy starring Tiffany Haddish and Billy Crystal, leaving many of us both intrigued and perplexed. A movie co-starring Tiffany Haddish and Billy Crystal seems like it could go one of two ways: inspired or disastrous. Crystal even directs the film, out in theaters May 7th, his first feature in 20 years — since 61*, in 2001.
Weird as it is on paper, Here Today, it turns out, is neither a memorable embarrassment nor a surprise masterpiece. It’s more like a solid proof-of-concept for how great a non-Woody Allen Woody Allen movie could be, should that non-Woody Allen not be Billy Crystal next time.
I don’t mean to bash Billy Crystal, I have nothing against the man and he does many things right here. He just gives the impression of someone who can’t be quite critical enough when the situation requires it. Here Today is a sweet premise and a compelling story that maybe needed a director who would’ve toned down rather than played up its schmaltzier elements.
Written by veteran comedy writer Alan Zwiebel (It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, SNL) Here Today stars Crystal stars as Charlie Berns, a legendary-ish comedy writer who serves as the elder statesman on a sketch show, mentoring comedy writers half his age more than he actually writes. Presumably, he’s sort of a stand-in for Zweibel himself. Charlie also has one big problem: he’s developed a rare form of dementia and hasn’t told anyone about it yet.
One day after work, Charlie has a lunch date with Emma Payge (played by Haddish) a fan who has won him in a charity auction. Or at least, her ex-boyfriend did, and now she’s living it up at a free lunch with some old white guy she’s never heard of. It’s the perfect New York comedy writer meet-cute, a setup that’s a little constructed, a little contrived, but creative and clever enough that you don’t mind. It works the same way good jokes work.
Then Emma discovers she’s allergic to shellfish and Here Today goes full-on Nutty Professor, with Haddish shouting Borscht Belt one-liners through giant lip prosthetics. We understand that this is meant to be a funny situation, did you really have to shriek the punchline?
This becomes a pattern in Here Today, in which an intriguing premise offers a tantalizing hook and leads to some interesting scenes, but consistently just can’t resist overdoing it. Charlie Berns and Emma Payge quickly develop a sweet, unorthodox friendship, even if she feels like a gender-swapped version of Sinbad in House Guest at times, the manic pixie dream girl meets the boisterous black person who teaches the whiteys to loosen up. Luckily House Guest was fun and Haddish is likable enough that she can actually pull this off.
The non-lecherous, May-December New York thing Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish have going here is surprisingly compelling, a glimpse at what a sanitized Woody Allen movie might look like. Interestingly, one of Here Today‘s recurring motifs is Charlie Berns rejecting younger writers’ too “risqué” jokes, including one about “a Rottweiler’s balls” (which was actually funny). “Sure, they’ll laugh, but will it be the right kind of laugh?” Charlie asks, coming off pedantic in a way that doesn’t seem intentional. You’re going to go for the easy swollen lip gag but lecture the audience about a dog’s balls? Please.
Here Today also fails at the one thing Woody Allen consistently tended to get right: the performances of the female principals. While Haddish does wonders with what could’ve been a lame role, there’s also Charlie’s dead wife, Carrie, played by Louisa Krause, who appears to us in Charlie’s first-person flashbacks. Acting directly to a camera admittedly seems much harder than acting with another person, but Carrie treats Charlie (and us) more like small children than an adult humans, telegraphing every emotion and acting overly ingratiating in a slightly unctuous way.
Likewise, Charlie’s daughter, Francine (Laura Benanti) has been written as a little uptight, presumably as a foil for Haddish’s “outrageous” Emma, but she’s so easily scandalized that she comes off both obnoxious and not believable. Francine pretends not to like it when Emma grabs the mic at the Bat Mitsvah, even when it’s plain to everyone that Emma is a delight.
Here Today is seemingly beset by Crystal’s inability to decide how much is too much. Even the ending suffers, the film sort of lingering upon the stage a little too long, drawing out a conclusion that could’ve been sweet but instead comes off saccharine. And yet, there was something here, if imperfectly delivered. It deserves credit for at least making us wonder what if.