Culture Representation: Taking place in San Francisco, Florida, Kentucky and the former Soviet Union in 1967, the animated film “Cryptozoo” features a nearly all white cast of characters depicting humans and hybrid/mutant animals.
Culture Clash: A heroic veterinarian teams up with her boss and a gorgon to rescue a baku (a rare dream-eating hybrid creature) before it is captured and sold on the blaxck market by greedy poachers.
Culture Audience: “Cryptozoo” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in adult-oriented animation that’s a throwback to psychedelic, hand-drawn animation of the late 1960s.
“Cryptozoo” brings an intriguing, adult-oriented alternative to the slick kiddie animation that has oversaturated the movie business. The hand-drawn graphics in “Cryptozoo” are sometimes rough around the edges, but the movie has an adventurous and psychedelic spirit that perfectly suits the story, which is set in 1967. Written and directed by Dash Shaw, with animation direction from Jane Samborski, “Cryptozoo” might not interest viewers who prefer their animation to be more elaborate and modern-looking. But the movie is admirable for being committed to its unique vision instead of trying to look like it wants to be a safe blockbuster hit.
“Cryptozoo” begins with a scene that definitely wouldn’t be in a children-oriented animated movie: A hippie couple in their 20s have sex while on a romantic date in an unnamed wooded area in San Francisco. Get used to seeing full-frontal nudity in “Cryptozoo.” The movie has an extended adventure sequence where one of the heroes spends the entire time naked and is neither self-conscious nor apologetic about it. And there’s a sex orgy scene in the movie.
The amorous couple in the movie’s opening scene are Amber (voiced by Louisa Krause) and her boyfriend Matthew (voiced by Michael Cera), who are lost in the woods. Amber and Matthew both consider themselves to be part of the counterculture movement. Matthew talks about a dream he had where he and his peers stormed the U.S. Capitol building and started a perfect society. In terms of personality, Amber is feisty, while Matthew is more laid-back.
Amber says about their jaunt in the woods, “I don’t know where we are. Everyone can go fuck themselves!” When Matthew compliments parts of Amber’s body as foreplay, she asks him, “What about something about my personality?” Matthew replies, “I really love your imagination.” That seems to do the trick, because the next thing you know, they’re having sex.
This bliss doesn’t last long though, as Amber gets nervous about spending the night in the woods. She’s afraid that wolves might attack them. Matthew smokes a joint and tells Amber not to get so worried. They wake up to see a seemingly never-ending high fence surrounding them.
Amber and Matthew, who are completely naked, decide to climb over the fence. They see a castle that Matthew remarks reminds him of something that could’ve been built for Walt Disney. And then, a unicorn appears. Matthew accidentally kicks something at the unicorn, which reacts by charging into Matthew and impaling Matthew with its horn.
A frightened and angry Amber tries to get the unicorn off of Matthew and eventually kills the unicorn by pounding it with a rock. After the unicorn dies, Amber breaks off the unicorn’s horn to use as a weapon in case she encounters any more attacking animals. And that’s when Amber looks around and sees that the place where she’s at has several mutant animals in cages. For example, one of the mutant animals is a chicken with a snake’s head.
Amber doesn’t know it yet, but she’s in Cryptozoo, a special sanctuary for mutant animals, called cryptids, that were rescued from poachers and people who want to sell these creatures on the black market. Cryptozoo is the brainchild of a no-nonsense elderly scientist named Joan (played by Grace Zabriskie) and the zoo’s veterinarian Lauren Gray (voiced by Lake Bell), who is in her 30s. The operation of Cryptozoo is funded by making it a tourist attraction.
Lauren explains in a flashback and a voiceover that she’s been obsessed with this idea of helping these mutant creatures, ever since she was a little girl and met a cryptid called a baku, which looks like a small elephant. The baku is an animal that can eat dreams, and the baku came to her as a little girl to eat her nightmares.
However, this baku (which is a female) disappeared and hasn’t been seen for decades. The speculation over whether the baku is alive or dead has become an urban legend. Lauren, who hopes to one day see the baku again, says in a voiceover, “I dedicated my life to help keep cryptids like her safe from harm.”
The rest of the movie chronicles an international adventure where there’s a race against time to prevent a group of cryptid hunters from finding the baku. The leader of these poachers is Nicholas (voiced by Thomas Jay Ryan), who is ruthless and greedy. Nicholas satyr ally named Gustav (voiced by Peter Stromare), who is hedonistic and untrustworthy.
Lauren and Joan team up with a Gorgon named Phoebe (voiced by Angeliki Papoulia), who hides the snakes on her head by wearing head wraps and wigs. She gives the snakes sleeping medication when she has to be out in public, in order for the snakes not to move around and bring attention to themselves. Phoebe has special powers which are revealed in the story.
Phoebe is reluctant to go on this mission because she wants to spend time with her fiancé Jay (voiced by Rajesh Parameswaran), who is a human and loves and accept Phoebe for who she is. However, Phoebe is convinced to join the mission because Lauren and Joan are both human, and they think it would benefit the mission if a cryptid was also on this journey.
One of the clues to solving the mystery of where the baku might be comes from a recent arrival to Cryptozoo. He is a young male cryptid named Pliny (voiced by Emily Davis), whose entire body is shaped like a human hand. Pliny doesn’t talk, but he can make noises to indicate yes or no answers. However, Pliny has an overprotective mother named Giulia (voiced by Irene Muscara), who has a tendency to interfere with the investigation.
People who enjoy fantasy worldbuilding will find much to like about “Cryptozoo,” which has elements that were definitely influenced by Dungeons & Dragons. “Cryptozoo” is also a rare animated feature film where all of the main heroes are female. The story is somewhat predictable and the dialogue isn’t going to win “Cryptozoo” any animation screenplay awards, but the visuals and some of the scenarios facing the characters are very compelling and presented with a well-paced flair. It’s fair to say that “Cryptozoo” might be one of the most memorable animated films that viewers will see in any given year.
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the dramatic film “Port Authority” features a racially diverse cast (white, African American and Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: After a 20-year-old man with a troubled past moves from Pittsburgh to New York City to start a new life, he becomes homeless and unexpectedly falls in love with a transgender woman who is involved in the city’s queer ballroom scene.
Culture Audience: “Port Authority” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in stories about relationships between straight people and LGBTQ people, as well as what homeless life could be like for young men in New York City.
In most movies about heterosexual men who fall in love with transgender women, the man in the relationship usually want to keep the woman’s transgender identity a secret, out of fear that he will be shunned by his peers and/or society. “Port Authority” is no exception, but the man in this story has a big secret of his own that he wants to keep from his lover: He’s homeless. “Port Authority” is a well-acted and occasionally haphazard look at one young couple’s journey into the intersections of sexuality, race relations and social-class tensions, as they strive to be authentic, even if they don’t always tell the truth about themselves.
Written and directed by Danielle Lessovitz, “Port Authority” is told from the perspective of a 20-year-old troubled drifter named Paul (played by Fionn Whitehead), who has moved to New York City from Pittsburgh. As seen in different parts of the story, and by Paul’s own admission, he has an anger management problem and he’s an occasional masochist. Except for when he loses his temper, Paul is generally quiet and introverted. He might have had a lot of experience with life’s hardships, but it soon becomes apparent later in the story that he doesn’t have much experience when it comes to love and romance.
In the movie’s opening scene, Paul has arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Mahattan and is frustrated to find out that his estranged sister Sara, whom he thought was going to pick up him at the bus terminal, is nowhere to be found. Paul doesn’t have her phone number and doesn’t know where she lives, because this meeting was arranged by someone named Mary. It’s an example of how Paul is not skilled at planning and communication.
While waiting outside and trying to figure out what to do, Paul notices a small group of openly queer young people who are around his age and are gathered nearby. They are African American and Latino cisgender gay men and transgender women. Everyone in the group seems to be friends, and they are comfortable enough with each other that they can tease each other without anyone getting offended. Paul will see this group of friends again later on in the story.
After giving up hope that he will have a place to stay for the night, Paul decides to sleep on a subway. He’s woken up by two middle-aged men, who steal his baseball cap and phone. Little do the robbers know that Paul is a fighter. He gets into a brawl with the two men, but he’s outnumbered, and they start beating him up.
A passenger nearby comes to Paul’s rescue, joins in on the fight, and manages to chase the men away. One of the thieves tosses away Paul’s phone (whose screen is now broken) in the subway car before leaving. The guy who came to Paul’s rescue introduces himself. His name is Lee (played by McCaul Lombardi), and he can sense that Paul is new to the area.
Paul admits that he just arrived from Pittsburgh and doesn’t have a place to stay because his sister, who was supposed to pick him up at the bus terminal, never showed up and he doesn’t know how to find her. Lee warns Paul to be careful where to sleep because he could be robbed again. Lee also mentions that some attackers don’t want to steal but want to sexually assault. Lee talks about an incident where it almost happened to him, but he was able to fight off his attacker.
Lee asks Paul if he’s gay because he notices that Paul is wearing an earring. Paul says no. During this conversation, Lee uses a homophobic slur for a gay man. It will be one of many times in the story that Lee shows that he’s homophobic and that he likes to assert his heterosexuality. Outside on the street, Lee uses some liquor to clean off some of Paul’s bloody wounds from the fight. Paul’s face is covered with blood, and Lee jokes that it looks like a menstruating woman sat on Paul’s face.
As Paul and Lee talk some more, Lee seems to feel sympathy for Paul, so he tells Paul that he’s homeless too and living in a men’s shelter. Lee invites Paul to stay at this shelter, which is in the Gramercy Park area. With nowhere else to go, Paul eagerly accepts the invitation. Several of the young men in the shelter work for a debt collection company that has these guys traveling in a mover’s truck and repossessing people’s home items, such as furniture and TVs.
Why is Paul homeless? Where is his family? It’s revealed later in the story that his father abandoned him and Paul’s mother when Paul was a child. Paul’s mother was unable to take care of him (it’s never stated why), so he was put in foster care until he turned 18. While he was in foster care, Paul rarely saw his mother, who never kept her promise that she would get him out of foster care so he could live with her again.
Because Paul never says that his mother is dead, it’s implied that she’s still alive but he’s no longer in contact with her. Since becoming an adult, Paul bounced from place to place, without finding any real sense of family. He was kicked out of wherever he was living in Pittsburgh, but the movie doesn’t go into the details about why he was told to leave. He’s also on probation for a crime or crimes that the movie does not reveal.
Based on what Paul says, Mary (the person who told Paul that he could live with Sara) seems to be either a mutual friend or relative. Paul has left a message for Mary to call him back. And when she does, Mary gives him Sara’s address. When Paul goes to Sara’s address unannounced (she lives in a comfortably-sized middle-class apartment with a husband or boyfriend), she’s very surprised to see Paul. Sara (played by Louisa Krause) also has guests over and refuses to let Paul inside her home.
Instead, Paul and Sara have a tension-filled, brief conversation in the apartment hallway. Paul tells Sara, “Mary said I could live here.” Sarah looks at him in disbelief and says, “Is this a game? I told Mary no.” As a compromise for not letting Paul stay with her, Sara offers to give Paul a one-time cash gift (a few hundred dollars) to help him. It’s implied that Sara and Paul didn’t grow up together, so they don’t know each other well.
At the men’s shelter, Paul notices that one of the residents is one of the gay men he saw at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. His name is Tekay, pronounced “T.K.” (played by Devon Carpenter), and Paul sees him practicing some voguing dance moves in a stairwell. One night, without Tekay knowing, Paul follows him to a rehearsal space where several people from the queer ballroom scene are having a Kiki, which is a ballroom term for a social gathering where people can hang out and rehearse. In the queer ballroom scene, contestants are judged on how they move and what they wear.
The people rehearsing are from a ballroom competition group (also know as a “house”) called the House of McQueen. All of the people in the House of McQueen (including Tekay) call each other siblings and treat each other like a loving and supportive family. And they have also informally taken the last name McQueen, in honor of the name of their ballroom house. The leader of each house is called a “house mother” or “house father.”
Paul immediately stands out at this Kiki because he’s the only white person there. One of the McQueen brothers in the room asks Paul suspiciously who he’s with or who invited him there. It’s right then and there that Paul and a pretty McQueen sister named Wye (pronounced “why”) see each other across the room. Wye (played by Leyna Bloom) was among of the queer group of friends whom Paul saw at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, but she was talking with her friends and never noticed Paul. This time, Paul and Wye lock eyes in the way that people in movies do when you know they’re going to fall in love.
As Paul is being interrogated on what he’s doing there, he manages to mumble that a friend invited him. But this McQueen brother wants to know which friend. Paul doesn’t have an answer, so he’s told to leave. As an embarrassed Paul walks out into the street, free-spirited and emotionally intelligent Wye approaches him and makes an apology for her “brother” being so rude.
Paul offers Wye a cigarette, but she declines and says she’s trying to quit smoking. As proof, Wye shows Paul the nicotine patch that she’s wearing. Paul doesn’t waste time in asking Wye out on a date, and they head to a pizza place that’s nearby.
During their conversation at the pizza place, Wye tells Paul her name and asks him why his face is injured. Paul tells her that he got into a fight. He adds, “I have this anger thing. Sometimes I do stuff. It gets me in trouble.”
Wye opens up a little about herself too. She tells Paul that she used to be in the U.S. Navy. He’s a little surprised and responds by telling her that she could be a model. Wye is coy and says that she’s “single and unavailable.” The date ends as soon as they finish their pizza, but they exchange phone numbers.
But by the end of this date, Paul and Wye have left certain things unsaid. Paul doesn’t tell Wye that he’s homeless and living in a shelter because he’s ashamed of being homeless. Instead, Paul lies and tells Wye that he’s living with his sister. Wye doesn’t tell Paul that she’s a transgender woman because she assumes that he knows because of where they met.
Paul might be street-smart in some ways, but at this point in the story, he’s completely ignorant about the queer ballroom scene. Later in the movie, Paul tells another lie to Wye and her friends about what he does for work. He tells them that he helps people “move stuff,” but he doesn’t say that what he moves are repossessed items because he works for a debt collector.
It’s not spoiler information to reveal that Paul eventually finds out that Wye is transgender. How he finds out won’t be revealed in this review, but is revealed in the movie’s trailer. It’s enough to say that Paul finds out that Wye is a trans woman after he’s already fallen for Wye but they haven’t had sex yet.
And he’s not happy to hear about her transgender identity because, as he tells her, “I’m not gay!” Wye says she’s not looking to be with a gay man either. There are hints throughout the story that although Paul isn’t a virgin, he’s never really had a meaningful romance, because he doesn’t mention any ex-girlfriends. It’s very likely that Paul’s relationship with Wye could be the first time that he’s really fallen in love.
During his romance with Wye, Paul becomes fascinated by the ballroom scene. The McQueen family members at first eye him with some skepticism and caution. They think Paul might be a “chaser” (a straight man who fetishizes trans women), but eventually they see that Paul and Wye genuinely care for each other and respect each other. Some viewers might think that Paul is accepted by the McQueen family a little too quickly, but it’s clear he got this quick approval only because of his relationship with Wye.
Wye lives with several of the McQueen family members in the same apartment. The house leader is Mother McQueen (played by Christopher Quarles), who is the oldest member of the group and who acts like a surrogate parent to everyone. The other McQueen family members in the apartment are Max McQueen (played by Max Kpoyour), Azza McQueen (played by Azza Melton), Taliek McQueen (played by Taliek Jeqon) and Eddie McQueen (played by Eddie Plaza).
It’s a very different group from the macho and rough guys who are at the men’s shelter. Lee is the unofficial leader of the shelter residents who work as debt collectors. Another guy in this group is a tall, beefy blonde named Nix (played by William Dufault), who is very homophobic like Lee is. Nix also has a quick temper and is ready to pick a fight with anyone who’s openly queer or whom he thinks might be queer. Nix is the first one at the shelter to see signs that Paul and Tekay have been hanging out together.
While Paul spends time with Wye during ballroom rehearsals and in the McQueen family’s apartment, he also learns the hierarchy of the ballroom categories: The most difficult challenges are for the most experienced or most talented members of the house. For example, the face challenge is easier than the runway challenge. Wye tries to convince Mother McQueen that she’s ready to graduate from the face challenge to the runway challenge.
The House of McQueen is competing in a ballroom competition where the grand prize is $1,000. They need the money because the house members who share the same apartment are close to being evicted for non-payment of rent. (When Wye first takes Paul to the apartment, she quickly hides the eviction notice that’s on the front door.) And considering that Paul works for a debt collector, it’s very easy to speculate what might happen.
The romance between Wye and Paul is very sweet and doesn’t move too quickly. Their interracial relationship is not a problem for either of them or Wye’s queer community of friends. In fact, when Paul asks if it would be possible for him to participate in a ballroom competition, a lighthearted joke is made that he could present “white boy realness” in his challenge. In all seriousness, Wye explains that in the ballroom scene, couples are not allowed to be in the same ballroom house.
Paul and Wye eventually open up to each other about their respective troubled backgrounds. Wye says that she was bullied at school for being different. And when she was 16, she was kicked out of her home after borrowing her stepmother’s pink leather jacket to wear it at school. Of course, being rejected by her family wasn’t really about the leather jacket. It seems too painful for Wye to say the real reason out loud.
Meanwhile, Paul’s secret of being homeless becomes harder for him to keep from Wye when she eventually wants to see where Paul lives. Tekay knows Paul’s secret because Tekay is living at the shelter too, and he doesn’t want his McQueen family to know. Paul and Tekay have an unspoken agreement to keep their homeless secret from the McQueen family.
“Port Authority” is not the type of movie that keeps the same pace throughout the story. There are ebbs and flows, just like there would be in real life. However, there’s some melodrama in the last third of the movie that could make or break the romance between Wye and Paul. How it’s resolved is kind of rushed into the story in a way that could happen in real life, but it still seems a little too contrived.
The movie’s greatest strength is in the believable acting by the principal cast members. Whitehead’s Paul has an interesting mix of being vulnerable and emotionally damaged but also an unpredictable and violent loose cannon. Bloom’s Wye realistically portrays someone who is trying to figure out how to articulate her feelings about being a trans woman to people who are not part of the LGBTQ community. Lombardi’s Lee accurately depicts the type of toxic masculinity among homophobic men who think they’re “good guys” because they’re loyal to other men who identify as straight, without much regard for how their hateful bigotry can hurt other people.
“Port Authority” was filmed on location in New York City and has real people from the city’s queer ballroom scene, which add to the authenticity of the movie. Yes, it’s a scripted movie with actors. But there are certain ways that people in the ballroom scene talk and move that just can’t be faked. These ballroom culture scenes are among the best in the film.
The movie also shows that although Paul is the only straight person and the only white person who’s hanging out with the House of McQueen, he’s eventually accepted into this social group because he treats them respect. The homophobic thugs at the men’s shelter offer no such courtesy to queer people because they don’t care about getting to know anyone who doesn’t fit their definition of “acceptable sexuality.” Paul is walking a tightrope with his secrets and lies because he’s literally caught between these two worlds.
Paul might have anger management problems, but he doesn’t get violent or abusive with women. The movie shows that underneath his somewhat unstable emotional state, he has a gentleman’s sensibility in how women should be treated. There’s a scene where Lee invites Paul to a party, where Lee encourages one of the young women at the party to hook up with Paul as soon as she meets him. Paul abruptly leaves the party not because he’s not sexually attracted to women but because he’s uncomfortable with how this woman is being objectified by Lee.
“Port Authority” writer/director Lessovitz has crafted a story that might resonate more with viewers who understand the LGBTQ community rather than people who don’t care to understand the LGBTQ community. That’s because “Port Authority” tends to wander and lose a little bit of focus midway through the film. The capable performances by the actors should sustain most people’s interest.
However, certain viewers who aren’t curious to see what will happen to Paul and Wye might get bored and might not finish watching the movie. People who watch the movie until the end might not get the ending they expect. However, “Port Authority” is a solid addition to the small number of mainstream indie films about straight men who fall in love with transgender women. The movie’s story takes place over a few months, so it’s more of a snapshot portrait than a sweeping epic.
Momentum Pictures released “Port Authority” in select U.S. cinemas on May 28, 2021, and on digital and VOD on June 1, 2021. The movie was released in France in 2019.
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.
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 she 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.
Stage 6 Films released “Here Today” in U.S. cinemas on May 7, 2021.