There’s a reassuring familiarity that accompanies Billy Crystal’s name on a film. The warmth that goes with classics like When Harry Met Sally, the affection for the ever-enthusiastic voice he brings to Mike in the Monsters Inc franchise and his liking for reflecting his comedic career in his on-screen roles. His first venture into that particular spotlight was his directorial debut, Mr Saturday Night (1992) and he returns to both roles in the closer for this year’s EIFF, Here Today. But it’s a step too far.
Crystal also co-wrote the script for this story of comedy writer Charlie Burnz, who has a legendary TV, stage and cinema career behind him and now works as a staff writer for a late night show. He’s there purely because of his reputation, contributing little to the scripts but providing a certain quality control. By chance he meets the vibrant Emma (Tiffany Haddish), an amateur singer, and the two become unlikely friends. But she notices that his memory is starting to fade and starts encouraging him to remember his years with his late wife so that he can write a book about it before they disappear altogether.
Starting out as an inter-generational comedy with a platonic friendship at its centre, Here Today works perfectly well on that level. There’s plenty to keep a smile on the audience’s face, even if the out-loud laughs are few and far between, and the warm interplay between Crystal and Haddish frequently slips into acceptable schmaltz. It’s when we find out the exact reason for Charlie’s failing memory – something we’ve been shown right from the start when we see him taking the same, regimented route to work – that the film shifts into more serious territory. We know what’s coming, just like he does, but turning the second half of the film into something with aspirations in the direction of The Father or Supernova is simply asking too much of the script, or our credulity. Emma, who has only been in Charlie’s life for a few months, puts her singing career on hold to be his carer, the tributes to his talent are frequent and fulsome and the screen is awash with benevolent, pitying smiles.
Essentially, the film tries hard to be something it’s not and, inevitably, falls very short. While it wants to be a poignant, tender portrait of decline, it simply doesn’t have the chutzpah to either examine the subject in more depth or, bolder still, concentrate on that aspect of the narrative and put the comedy to one side. Bringing the two together makes for an uncomfortable and unconvincing combination and, while the two leads are an attractive pairing, neither of them stand a chance of overcoming the obstacles placed in their way. That applies especially to Crystal who barely gets beyond looking bewildered and confused, which prompts the thought that he may have taken on too much by directing and writing, as well as starring.
The sentimental ending may prompt a snuffle or two but, ultimately, this is a middle of the road comedy/drama, mushy at its core and with Life Lessons – with capital Ls – aplenty to teach us. Given that Charlie is supposed to be such a great writer, the thought that he might have made a better job of the script is never far away.
Comedy, Drama | Cert: 12A | Edinburgh Film Festival 25 August 2021. | Cinemas from 3 September 2021 | Sony Pictures | Dir. Billy Crystal | Billy Crystal, Tiffany Haddish, Louisa Krause, Anna Deavere Smith, Matthew Broussard, Alex Brightman.