There’s an unwritten rule that when comedy professionals make movies about comedy professionals — be they stand-ups, late-night sketch stars, or talk-show gag-writers — the jokes made by the comedians-within-the-movie are almost never funny. That’s certainly the case with “Here Today,” although the thudding attempts at humor are the least of the movie’s problems.
Director, star, and co-writer Billy Crystal, back on the crying-on-the-inside beat some three decades after “Mr. Saturday Night,” wants viewers to chuckle and weep with this tale of a legendary comedy writer facing the grim realities of oncoming dementia, but “Here Today” takes pretty much everything “The Father” did right and does it wrong, and as a bonus, reduces the elemental force that is Tiffany Haddish to a magical caregiver.
Crystal stars as Charlie Burnz, a legendary comic scribe who succeeded in movies, TV, and on Broadway and now works as a staff writer for a live late-night show whose executive producer keeps Charlie around as the arbiter of quality comedy. (The boss defends Charlie in a clunky scene that feels like an outtake from Aaron Sorkin’s infamous “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”) Charlie’s still got jokes, but his memory is going — he has to remind himself of every turn he needs to take on his daily walk to the studio, and his bulletin board is covered with pictures and post-its to remind him who certain people are.
He meets singer Emma Payge (Haddish) for lunch, thinking she was the winning bidder at a charity auction; it turns out her cheating actor boyfriend bought the lunch, and she took it from him, not even knowing who Charlie is. When Charlie takes Emma to the hospital after a severe allergic reaction to the seafood salad, an unlikely friendship is born. (Good thing, since the movie never gives either character any other friends to speak of.)
He goes to see her perform, and she attends a Q&A of one of his old movies at Lincoln Center; when Charlie forgets the names of Barry Levinson and Sharon Stone (both playing themselves) onstage, Emma realizes his memory is starting to go. Charlie opens up to her about it, and she begins texting him prompts to get him to remember his late, beloved wife Carrie (Louisa Krause, “Dark Waters”) so he can write a book about their life together before his ability to remember is gone.
This is a premise with potential, but “Here Today” squanders its opportunity with too many clichés (Charlie has a Deep, Dark Secret that the movie takes forever to reveal) and by forcing Emma to pivot from hard-working singer on the rise to someone who will happily put her career on the shelf to take care of Charlie. Even though Charlie has a strained relationship with his two adult children (for reasons having to do with the Deep, Dark Secret), the movie is filled with people gushing over his talent, his brilliant sense of humor, and his nurturing of young talent. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but when Crystal is playing Charlie, directing the movie, and writing those lines (with Alan Zweibel, on whose story the film is based), it all feels uncomfortably self-congratulatory.
There are a few stand-out moments, whether it’s Haddish entertainingly belting out some blues numbers or Crystal capturing the terror and confusion on the day that Charlie’s walk to work is interrupted by a street closure, as cabbies honk and New York pedestrians shriek at him. And you certainly have to give it up for a movie that manages to work in an Itzhak Perlman cameo.
For a movie by and about funny people, though, the one-liners tend to land with a thud, whether they’re performed on the sketch show or bantered between Charlie and Emma on a walk-through of Madame Tussaud’s. As New York movies go, the cinematography by Vanja Cernjul (“Crazy Rich Asians”) is so flatly generic that they could have shot the whole thing in Calgary.
“Here Today” tries hard to be warm and witty and ultimately devastating and poignant, but it remains firmly in the mushy middle of sitcom sentiment, with lessons learned and hugs exchanged and an “aww” from the studio audience. If Charlie’s as talented as the film keeps telling us he is, he’d send it back for a rewrite.
“Here Today” opens in US theaters May 7.