“Here Today” is a fantastic new movie that stars, and was co-written and directed by, Billy Crystal in his first major movie in nearly a decade. And it may be his best movie ever, next to “When Harry Met Sally.” While only 46% of the critics at Rotten Tomatoes give it a positive review, it is popular with audiences (93% positive rating). It’s clear to me that the naysayers simply don’t know how to handle a deeply human story in an age of computerized bombast at the box office.
The movie follows Charlie Burnz (Crystal), a legendary TV comedy writer who’s now in his 70s and still working on a show called “This Just In!” (which is clearly a stand-in for “Saturday Night Live”). He hangs onto the job because the head writer, who was his protégé, feels that in addition to still writing some good jokes for the show, Charlie has a great sense of comedy ethics and keeps the younger writers from becoming too crass on the air.
Charlie has an unusually strict daily routine that includes a rigorous walk to work each day during which he tells himself to turn left or right at various spots. His routine hides the fact that he’s secretly battling the onset of dementia, a fact that he hasn’t shared with his coworkers or his grown son, daughter, and teenage granddaughter.
Charlie’s life is thrown for a loop one day when he has lunch with a young black woman named Emma Page (Tiffany Haddish), who won the outing as a prize in a charity raffle. In actuality, she has no idea who Charlie is or why he’s famous, since her now-ex boyfriend bid on the lunch prize because he was a great fan of Charlie’s work, and now she’s using the prize for a free lunch and to get back at her ex.
But when Emma—a jazz singer who performs in cabarets and on the streets for tips—has a hilariously bad allergic reaction to a seafood salad and winds up in the emergency room with no health insurance, Charlie foots the $11,000 bill. While he doesn’t expect Emma to repay him, she enters his life at the most unexpected times to hand him sackfuls of cash as repayment. And so an unusual and deep friendship is born.
Charlie’s grown kids already resent him for the way their mother died decades ago, and now look at his friendship with Emma in disdain as they assume the two are now an odd couple. But what is building between Emma and Charlie is infinitely more complex and beautiful, and the two learn great things about life from each other as Emma has to decide how close to get to him while Charlie’s mental condition worsens.
“Here Today” might appear, on the surface, to be a politically-correct movie since it involves black and white leads coming together. But, thankfully, it doesn’t have any agenda to push. It is simply a poignant, universal story of friendship, caring, and reconciliation that any adult or teen can enjoy.
Crystal knocks it out of the park in his three roles. In particular, he works wonders with Haddish, a highly talented comedian turned actress who has previously largely wasted her talents on crass and silly movies such “Girls Trip” and “Like a Boss.”
Haddish is a revelation here, a joy to behold in her frequent funny moments and lively spirit, but also beautifully playing the serious emotions that surface throughout. Perhaps most surprising is her singing ability, as she adroitly handles a series of fun jazz standards—but really gives her all to a show-stopping take on Janis Joplin’s rock classic “Piece of My Heart” at a bat mitzvah reception.
This is Oscar-quality work that will sadly be likely ignored because the movie is being lost amid the noisy crowd of summer blockbusters and dumped by its distributor Sony into just one-third of the theaters most major releases play in.
The movie’s handling of dementia and aging is superb, with Crystal believably losing his memory in noticeable yet gradual phases. While he pulls off the drama exceptionally well—especially in a furious rant about his condition—he also has a stunningly energetic comic centerpiece in which he bursts onto his TV show’s live set and delivers an amazing tirade against a hapless cast member’s mispronunciation of dialogue.
Rated PG-13, “Here Today” is marred a bit by its frequent, casual use of mild obscenities and a couple uses of major obscenities and profanities. Viewers may rightfully be shocked when Charlie swears profanely at God when lamenting his illness. But nearly anyone would be furious in that situation and the movie more than makes up for this offense with its powerful message and its depiction of Charlie and his family as devoutly practicing Jews.
Sadly, “Here Today” isn’t getting much of a chance in theaters, so by all means check your local listings and see it if you can catch it soon.
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