Eight years ago, when talking to the New York Times about a new book, Billy Crystal bemoaned the fact that Hollywood no longer saw him as a viable romantic lead at the age of 65. It was hard enough to get movies made at all, the funnyman told Dave Itzkoff, and “it’s not easy to go through that when you can’t get the girl anymore. You can, but usually you both die.” It was a curious point for Crystal to make, because even in his heyday as a movie star in the late ’80s and ’90s, his career wasn’t exactly defined by an array of famously swoon-y roles. There was, really, just the one, though when that one is When Harry Met Sally …, one of the greatest romantic comedies ever made, it tends to leave an outsize impression. Still, it took six years for Crystal to star in another rom-com after that Rob Reiner classic, and then, it was in a movie he directed himself: Forget Paris, in which he plays an NBA referee who falls for an airline employee played by Debra Winger. It’s possible that Crystal has always thought of himself as more of an onscreen lover than the industry did — a theory his new movie about the cross-generational bond between a lonely writer and a carefree performer, Here Today, supports.
In the film — based on a short story by Alan Zweibel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Crystal, who also directs — Crystal’s an aging comedy legend named Charlie Burnz who befriends Emma Payge, a singer played by Tiffany Haddish. They don’t have sex, and yet everyone around them keeps asking if they’re a couple, as though it were the obvious thought anyone might have when seeing the two together. The doctor (Anna Deavere Smith) who’s treating Charlie for dementia wants to know if they’re boyfriend and girlfriend (“We spooned!” they cheerfully reply). Charlie’s estranged daughter Francine (Laura Benanti) corners Emma at a bat mitzvah to ask how long Emma and Charlie have been dating. After Emma crawls into Charlie’s bed one night because she’s afraid of thunder, he ends up wondering if anything happened between then. The prospect of a May-December romance between Crystal and Haddish isn’t exactly appealing, but after a while, it starts to feel like it would make more sense than the one-directional relationship that does develop over the course of this odd little film. As it is, though, Emma has a distinct whiff of the magical that even Haddish’s ebullient ease onscreen can’t obscure.
Emma comes crashing into Charlie’s life when she meets him for a lunch that was auctioned off for charity, though it was her ex who’s the fan who made the winning bid; she’s just there out of spite in the wake of their breakup. After a mishap involving a seafood salad and a trip to the ER, the two become friends, or even, the movie would have us believe, soul mates. But it’s only Charlie’s life we see — the mental decline he’s been hiding, his strained relationships with Francine and his son Rex (Penn Badgley), his job as a writer on an SNL-like sketch show called This Just In, and, eventually, regretful flashbacks to his marriage with his late wife Carrie (Louisa Krause). It’s unclear, meanwhile, where Emma lives, or how she supports herself as part of a band that mainly seems to busk in the subway. When she receives what sounds like the career opportunity of a lifetime, she sets it aside without fuss to help Charlie out. The film doesn’t need to show Crystal and Haddish in a passionate clinch to be an indulgent fantasy — Emma’s willingness to always show up for Charlie without getting anything in return aside from hostility from his daughter is its own form of narrative wish fulfillment.
But while Here Today never works, there is a confessional quality to it that makes it intermittently interesting. It’s the movie equivalent of someone telling what they think is a funny anecdote, but that instead comes out as an inadvertent glimpse into their soul. The array of celebrities playing themselves — among them Kevin Kline, Sharon Stone, and Barry Levinson as the stars and director of a beloved comedy Charlie wrote — represent an unignorable flex of power, a reminder of Crystal’s reputation and the long arc of his career. And yet, in the scenes in Charlie’s workplace, where he’s the venerable artifact in a writers’ room full of young talent, it’s never clear what the character is holding the line against. He doesn’t like jokes that he sees as too profane, and he doesn’t like the odd emphasis that a brash up-and-comer named Roger (Matthew Broussard) gives certain words. But the sketches Charlie does usher through, some of them the work of a meek young Harvard Lampoon alum named Darrell (Andrew Durand) whom he takes under his wing, are just as terrible as the ones he dislikes. His greatest success is an on-air breakdown that becomes an accidental viral moment, and it’s impossible to tell how we’re supposed to feel about it. Crystal may fret about no longer being able to get the girl, but the fear at the core of Here Today has more to do with no longer being sure of the terrain of contemporary comedy.