Review: ‘Here Today,’ starring Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish

May 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tiffany Haddish and Billy Crystal in “Here Today” (Photo by Cara Howe/Stage 6 Films)

“Here Today”

Directed by Billy Crystal

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, the comedy/drama film “Here Today” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widowed senior citizen, who works as a TV comedy writer, has early stages of dementia and is afraid to tell anyone until he meets a feisty female singer who becomes his unexpected friend.

Culture Audience: “Here Today” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching old-fashioned movies with flat comedy and overly formulaic drama.

Laura Benanti, Penn Badgley, Billy Crystal, Tiffany Haddish and Audrey Hsieh in “Here Today” (Photo by Cara Howe/Stage 6 Films)

There used to be a time when a tedious cornball movie like “Here Today” would have been lapped up by movie audiences like hungry pets happy to get stale, leftover scraps. But in this day and age, when viewers have so many more and much better entertainment options, “Here Today” is the equivalent of food that’s years past its expiration date that the filmmakers are trying pass off as appealing and fresh. The movie is filled with outdated stereotypes and terrible jokes, clumsily paired with heavy-handed melodrama that’s too manipulative to come across as believable.

Billy Crystal is the star, director and co-writer of “Here Today,” which was co-written by Alan Zweibel. Crystal has been in many better-quality movies, some of which are considered classics. But maybe Crystal was just too close to the material of “Here Today” to take a more constructively critical look at how out-of-touch and embarrassing this movie is for today’s audiences. And with a total running time of nearly two hours, “Here Today” suffers from overly indulgent editing, since some scenes definitely did not need to be in the movie.

It’s not a completely terrible film, but “Here Today” should have been so much better, considering the level of talent and experience that the main cast members have. Some of the cast members of “Here Today” put in valiant efforts to bring authenticity to their roles, while other cast members just coast by and recite their lines, with no seeming emotional connection to their characters. Crystal and “Here Today” co-star Tiffany Haddish are two of the movie’s producers, so they bear much of the responsibility for how disappointing this movie is.

It’s obvious that Crystal called in favors to some of his celebrity friends to make cameos in the movie. Sharon Stone, Kevin Kline, Barry Levinson and Bob Costas have small roles portraying themselves doing a live audience Q&A about a fictional movie. Itzhak Perlman appears briefly in an unrealistic scene where he’s shown playing violin outside a window because he happens to be a neighbor of Crystal’s “Here Today” character. But this type of stunt casting can’t save the film from being a mostly cringeworthy story that uses dementia as a way to make Crystal’s main character look more sympathetic.

In “Here Today,” Crystal plays widower Charlie Burnz, a longtime, successful entertainment writer in New York City. Charlie currently works for a cable TV sketch comedy series called “This Just In,” which is supposed to be a lot like “Saturday Night Live.” Charlie has been working for “This Just In” for years and has previously been a Broadway playwright and a movie screenwriter. He’s won several of the entertainment industry’s highest accolades (including an Emmy Award and a Tony Award), but he’s been having writer’s block on a memoir that he wants to dedicate to his late wife, who died about 25 years ago.

Charlie is the oldest person on the “This Just In” writing team, which consists of people in their 20s and 30s, mostly white males. However, the stiff and unfunny jokes that these staff writers come up with sound exactly like what they are—pathetic attempts to be “hip” and written by people old enough to be these staff writers’ parents and grandparents. This movie has no self-awareness at how bad these jokes are, because there are several unrealistic scenes of people laughing and clapping at boring and dumb jokes that wouldn’t even pass muster on a no-budget, amateur comedy channel on YouTube.

Even though Charlie is at an age when most people are retired, Charlie’s age isn’t what bothers him. He’s got a health problem that he’s very ashamed of having: early stages of dementia. And he’s hiding his dementia from everyone he knows, except for his trusted therapist Dr. Vidor (played by Anna Deavere Smith), who gently advises Charlie to eventually tell his family about his dementia.

In the beginning of the movie, Charlie follows his usual routine of getting up and going to work. But there are signs that he forgets everyday things (such as, the show’s writers have their meetings on Mondays), and he’s haunted by memories of a tragedy from his past. These memories come back in bits and pieces throughout the story until the entire truth is eventually revealed.

As soon as viewers find out that Charlie has a strained relationship with his two adult children (who are both supposed to be in their mid-30s) and that his kids don’t talk about their mother to Charlie, it’s easy to figure out that the death of Charlie’s wife has a lot to do with the hard feelings that Charlie’s children have toward him. The movie has several flashbacks depicting Charlie’s memories of the relationship that he had with his wife Carrie (played by Louisa Krause), a painter artist whom Charlie met on a beach in 1986, when he was in his late 30s and she was in her 20s. Carrie died when the children were about 8 to 11 years old.

Charlie’s first child is a mild-mannered architect named Rex (played by Penn Badgley), who longs for Charlie’s approval, but doesn’t often get the praise and attention from Charlie that Rex is seeking. Rex is married to a woman named Sophie, and they have a son named Harry (played by Grayson Eddey), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Sophie and Harry are barely in the movie, they don’t have any significant lines, and these two characters aren’t even listed in the movie’s end credits.

Charlie’s second child is uptight and judgmental Francine (played by Laura Benanti), who is a middle school teacher. Francine has an even more fractured relationship with Charlie than her brother Rex does. She avoids speaking with and visiting Charlie as much as she can.

Francine and her husband Larry (played by Charlie Pollock) have an adopted daughter named Lindsay (played by Audrey Hsieh), who’s about 12 or 13 years old. Lindsay adores Charlie and is aware that her mother’s feelings toward him aren’t as warm. Francine can no longer avoid Charlie in the near future, because he’s been invited to Lindsay’s upcoming bat mitzvah.

Francine’s hard feelings toward her father go beyond the fact that she feels he let his career take priority over being a good parent. Francine is particularly wary of the women who might come into Charlie’s life. As Charlie eventually reveals in later in the story, Francine has difficulty accepting any possible stepmother, because after Carrie died, Charlie had meaningless flings with several younger women. And workaholic widower Charlie also left much of the child rearing to a series of nannies.

And so, when Charlie starts hanging out with a boisterous, free-spirited aspiring singer named Emma Payge (played by Haddish), who’s young enough to be Charlie’s daughter, it doesn’t sit too well with Francine. Emma and Charlie met on a blind “date” because Charlie donated a lunch date with himself as part of a charity auction. Emma is predictably supposed to be the opposite of Charlie. She plays the role of someone who gets Charlie to see his life differently and helps him out of his emotional rut.

One of the biggest problems with “Here Today” is its subtle and not-so-subtle tone of racial condescension. For example, this charity auction (which is never seen in the movie) is mentioned as a fundraising event for “inner city libraries.” Of course, “inner city” is code in Hollywood movies for a place populated mostly by low-income people of color. And as soon as the words “inner city” are mentioned in this movie, you just know that the person who’s meeting Charlie for this lunch date is going have the negative stereotypes of being a crude and unsophisticated person of color.

Playing crude and unsophisticated characters is Haddish’s specialty, since she keeps perpetuating racially demeaning depictions of how a lot of racist people think African American women are supposed to be. The filmmakers show this racial condescension from the first moments that Emma appears on screen for this lunch date. It’s basically a scene where Emma is ignorant and so happy to be in a nice restaurant that she orders several of the more high-priced items on the menu.

The movie keeps portraying Emma as having a “from the ‘hood” mentality, with a lower intelligence level than the white people whom she interacts with in this story. It’s why the movie keeps showing Emma shoveling food in her mouth and giving constant “mmm-hmm” remarks when she’s eating, as if she can’t possibly know what it’s like to have good meals on a regular basis.

Emma performs cabaret-styled rock and pop tunes with her band. They’re struggling because they mostly perform in subways for money. And Emma doesn’t seem to have a day job. But just because she’s an aspiring entertainer doesn’t mean she’s taken the time to be knowledgeable about the entertainment business.

When Emma first meets Charlie for the lunch date, she says, “I don’t even know who the hell you are,” and she says that she’s never heard of “This Just In” or any of his award-winning work. Keep in mind that Emma is supposed to be in the entertainment business, albeit as a struggling singer. Her ignorance about a long-running comedy TV show that’s filmed in New York City is just one of many examples of how the movie makes Emma look less than smart.

Emma says that the only reason she’s on this lunch date is because her actor ex-boyfriend, who’s a big fan of Charlie’s, actually paid for it in the auction. And because this ex-boyfriend cheated on Emma, she “stole” the lunch date, out of revenge and spite. Charlie’s ego gets bruised a little bit when Emma tells him that the final auction price for this date was only $22, not $2,200 as Charlie assumed it was.

And just so viewers know early on that Emma has no sexual interest in Charlie, she rudely tells him during the lunch date how he wouldn’t be able to handle her if she were his lover: “I’d break your back, old man,” Emma smugly says. “I’d have you laid out dead, with a smile on your face.” Emma constantly calls Charlie “old man” throughout the movie, to the point where it gets very annoying.

And because “Here Today” has to have some ridiculous slapstick, Emma finds out too late during the luncheon that she’s allergic to the seafood that she ate. And so, there’s a scene with some very tacky visual effects of Emma with puffed-up lips and a swollen face. And because she has to be the stereotype of a loud-mouthed black woman, Emma’s freakout at the restaurant and her trip to the hospital emergency room are filled with her wailing and other hysterics.

In case it isn’t made clear that Emma is supposed to have a “ghetto” mentality, the movie makes a point of mentioning that she doesn’t have health insurance and she pulls a con game so Charlie will pay her hospital bill. A concerned Charlie accompanied Emma to the hospital. But he’s in for a shock when a hospital employee tells Charlie that Emma said that Charlie adopted her from Kenya and that Charlie would pay her hospital bill. And so, Charlie is now stuck paying the bill, which totals about $1,700.

Emma feels bad about the lie and later tells Charlie that she’ll pay him back for the entire bill, but Charlie says that she doesn’t have to do that. Since this movie is filled with racial condescension, Charlie accepts Emma excuse for why she lied to get him to pay her hospital bill. Emma tells Charlie: “I thought it would be cool to have a white dad.” Somewhere, Gary Coleman and Emmanuel Lewis are cringing.

Emma’s buffoonery continues when, after she checks out of the hospital, Emma ends up in Charlie’s home, with her trousers pulled down low enough for her butt to be partially exposed. It’s because Charlie is giving Emma an injection of the epinephrine that she was prescribed to treat her allergic reaction. Predictably, Emma does more hollering in this scene too. The filmmakers want viewers to believe that Emma has no one else in her life who could give her this injection but an old man she barely knows and who got scammed into paying her hospital bill.

Some people might think this butt injection scene is hilarious, but Haddish just looks like a foolish participant in this “shuck and jive” setup, which seems to be the filmmakers’ intention. Believe this: No one was asking for a movie showing Billy Crystal giving a butt injection to Tiffany Haddish. No one. Except for people who want to see Haddish literally be the butt of the joke.

And so, it should come as no surprise that Emma has a large tattoo on one of her butt cheeks that reads “Slippery When Wet.” The tattoo and Charlie’s reaction to it also reek of the deliberate way that the filmmakers want to make Emma look “trashy” compared to the more “sophisticated” Charlie. It’s all just lazy and loathsome stereotyping.

The next time that Charlie sees Emma, she has shown up unannounced outside his apartment. Emma tells Charlie that, even though he said he didn’t have to pay him back, she wants to repay him for the hospital bill. And she’s brought the first installment of her payment.

This redemption of Emma is so that she can show up in Charlie’s life with another payment installment. And eventually, she and Charlie become friends and start going on platonic dates together. Emma notices how forgetful Charlie is and tells him that he can confide in her about what’s going on with him.

And so, Charlie eventually tells Emma about his dementia. He also makes it clear to Emma that he’s not ready to tell his family or co-workers about his dementia. But since the movie wants Emma to be a “big mouth,” it’s easy to predict if she will be able to keep Charlie’s dementia a secret or not.

It seems that one of the main reasons why Haddish took this movie role was so that she could showcase her mediocre singing. She has some scenes where Emma performs cover songs in a way that’s not like, “Wow, this person should be a superstar singer,” but more like, “It’s easy to see why this singer is stuck performing in subways, dive bars and on sidewalks.”

At Lindsay’s bat mitzvah, Emma has to make the party about herself. Emma says the party has gotten too boring for her, so she gets up on stage and tries to be like Janis Joplin by leading a sing-along of “Piece of My Heart.” It’s a racially stereotypical scene meant to show how a black person with rhythm has to teach awkwardly dancing white people how to have a good time.

And since the movie can’t get enough of showing how petty and immature Emma can be, at one point in the movie, Emma randomly sees her most recent ex-boyfriend, whose name is Dwayne St. John (played by Nyambi Nyambi), and she decides to get revenge on him. This encounter happens after Emma and her band have performed near a pier, with Charlie in the small crowd watching the performance.

When Emma sees Dwayne, she puts Charlie in an awkward situation by making Charlie pretend that he’s her lover, just so Emma can make Dwayne jealous. Dwayne is star-struck by Charlie, and Emma offers to take a photo of Dwayne with Charlie, using Dwayne’s phone. But instead of taking a photo of Dwayne and Charlie together, Emma takes photos of herself. As she hands the phone back to Dwayne, she laughs and give him the middle finger.

Charlie isn’t above being a selfish boor either. There’s a very problematic scene in the movie where Charlie gets annoyed with one of the “This Just In” stars named Roger (played by Matthew Broussard), who has a habit of pronouncing the wrong inflections when saying certain words. It’s a habit that irritates Charlie because he doesn’t like to hear the words that he’s written pronounced incorrectly.

Instead of talking to Roger about it privately, which most respectful and emotionally mature adults would do, Charlie has a meltdown over it on live TV. Charlie goes on an epic rant and interrupts Roger on the soundstage, on camera, while Roger is doing a sketch similar to “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live.” During this rant, where Charlie lectures Roger on how to pronounce words, Charlie calls Roger a “dumb turd,” and then gets the entire studio audience to loudly chant “dumb turd” with him. It’s absolutely cruel and humiliating bullying.

The scene is played for laughs, with Charlie’s granddaughter Lindsay even laughing about it while she watches this nauseating spectacle on TV in her home. At first, Charlie’s co-workers backstage are shocked by his on-camera outburst, but then they start guffawing about it as if it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen. And Charlie’s unprofessional meltdown gets their approval even more when they find out that it’s gone viral on social media.

This blanket approval of Charlie’s obnoxious bullying of a co-worker is one of the many ways that “Here Today” looks out of touch with today’s reality. This type of public belittling of a co-worker might have been acceptable in Crystal’s heyday, but it’s not acceptable today. In reality, Charlie would be rightfully dragged on social media for it and would probably be suspended or fired.

Charlie’s toxic bullying, which has no justification, is even more loathsome because it’s over something very petty. Maybe Charlie would’ve gotten away with this degradation of a co-worker if it hadn’t been so public. But he did it on live TV, with millions of people watching. In real life, there’s no way someone in Charlie’s position would be largely celebrated by the public for this type of bullying.

And that’s why it rings hollow that the movie has an unnecessary subplot of Charlie being a mentor to a shy, young staff writer named Darrell (played by Andrew Durand), whose skit ideas are almost never used on the show. There are a few scenes in the movie where Charlie gives Darrell some pep talks to boost Darrell’s confidence. It’s meant to make Charlie look like a caring person, but observant viewers will notice that Charlie bonds with Darrell only because Charlie thinks they’re both underappreciated in their jobs.

“Here Today” is such a rambling and frequently unfocused movie that the tone is all over the place. At times, it wants to be a slapstick comedy, while other times it wants to be a comedy propelled by verbal jokes. It’s too bad that many of the jokes are dull and absolutely horrible. And in an attempt to liven up the film with some drama, the last 15 minutes of the movie get very heavy-handed to contrive a situation that you just know is supposed to bring everyone together.

Emma is never depicted as a whole person with a life independent of Charlie. Her home life is never shown because her character was written to be Charlie’s subservient sidekick. The most that viewers will find out about Emma’s background is in a scene where she tells Charlie that her parents were both singers and are currently living in Durham, North Carolina.

Emma describes her parents as what Ashford & Simpson would be like if Ashford & Simpson weren’t rich and famous. The movie makes it look like Emma’s dream is to become a famous singer, and she gets an opportunity that would be a big career boost for her. But then, she makes a decision that fits this movie’s racially condescending narrative.

Crystal’s acting in “Here Today” is much better than his direction or screenwriting. Still, he’s not doing anything new in this movie, because he’s played selfish and sarcastic characters many times before. Haddish is doing another version of the crass characters she always plays in movies and TV. Badgley doesn’t have much to work with in this movie, since his Rex character is blandly written.

Benanti is the cast member who does the best in making her Francine character look the most authentic. Francine might not be the most likable character in the story, but viewers can understand why she acts in the way that she does. Most people would be bitter too if they had a self-absorbed parent like Charlie.

To its credit, “Here Today” has some good cinematography when showing scenic parts of New York City, such as the Manhattan skyline and Hudson Yards. But good cinematography is wasted when the story is so faulty. One of the ways that “Here Today” is unbalanced is how it shows that because Charlie feels guilty about being an emotionally absent father, he tries to make up for it by being a devoted grandfather to Lindsay. However, there’s no explanation for why Charlie is not shown spending any time with his other grandchild Harry, who is Rex’s son.

Why even bother having this grandson character at all when this child is barely seen in the movie and isn’t even in the narrative of Charlie trying to redeem himself with his family? The impression that viewers will get is that Charlie heavily favors one grandchild over another, which defeats the redemption narrative that he’s supposed to be a good grandfather. And the overall impression that “Here Today” leaves is that this misguided movie isn’t too concerned about giving supporting characters much depth because this movie is ultimately Crystal’s vanity project.

Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Stage 6 Films released “Here Today” in U.S. cinemas on May 7, 2021.