Crystal, Haddish shine in ‘Here Today,’ but final act comes up short

Tiffany Haddish and Billy Crystal in Here Today / Astute Films

“Here Today” probably falls short of being the poignant and funny dramedy that Billy Crystal envisioned when he conceived it with writing partner Alan Zweibel, but that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t work on a number of levels.

The movie is funny. How could it not be with Crystal, who directs for the first time in 20 years, playing off his co-star Tiffany Haddish. Their likability singularly and together is off the charts. Both have charisma, charm, and know how to deliver the funny. Their odd-couple relationship kept me chuckling throughout the movie.

However, the sentimentality, and the writer-director’s desire for a somewhat dramatic climax fails the film that winds up with a maudlin conclusion that’s way too tidy for my taste.

While the film does not drag the viewer all the way through the agony and grief of families who are assisting a loved that suffers from dementia, when the family does come to grips with it, it barely touches the hem of the garment. The film relies too much on the individual viewer to supply the gut-wrenching backstory of what we see depicted on the screen. The movie does show some of the impact of dementia on its victim, but very little of how taxing the disease is on family members and caregivers.

While that neglect keeps the picture from being all that it could be, the movie is undeniably funny, and in bits and pieces very touching as we watch Crystal’s Charlie Berns, a noted comedy writer for a Saturday Night Live-type sketch show, develop a loving but platonic relationship with Haddish’s Emma Payge.

To get back at a former lover who is a huge fan of Charlie’s, Emma meets Berns for a lunch date, which she won in a celebrity auction for her former boyfriend. Sharp and sassy Emma impresses Charlie, making him laugh until an allergic reaction to sea food makes her face balloon to drastic and comedic proportions. Charlie calls for an ambulance and plays the Good Samaritan by paying her emergency room and doctors bills.

When Emma visits Charlie to make a payment on what she owes him, the two begin a fast friendship that quickly develops into Emma becoming a semi-caretaker for Charlie, who is entering the mid-stages of dementia.

Charlie’s desire is to finish a book inspired by his relationship with his late wife “before he loses the words.”

We learn that Charlie filled his life with work, particularly after his wife’s death, and while he has a congenial relationship with his son, daughter, and granddaughter, they really don’t know each other very well. He’s successfully hidden his progressing condition from them up until the climax of the film.

Crystal and Haddish’s chemistry carry the movie, but deft scenes of Charlie mentoring a promising but reticent writer for their sketch show also stand out.

The movie’s most compelling and heartbreaking scene comes when Charlie becomes so incensed at a sketch performer for butchering his script during a live broadcast that he forgets the circumstances, walks on set, and hilariously berates the performer.

The show runner and other writers see it as comedy gold with only Emma detecting that something is terribly wrong with Charlie.

The well-crafted scene and the one that follows where Charlie and Emma visit his doctor cuts to the heart of just how excruciating, confusing, and heartbreaking dementia can be on the sufferer and his loved ones. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie fails to reach that level of truth, leaving “Here Today” a mixed bag.

I enjoyed the movie. It was great to see Crystal working again, and he is as sharp as ever. To me, this is Haddish’s best and most well-rounded performance to date. However, the final act left a good bit to be desired after such a strong start.

(PG-13) 1 hr. 53 min.
Grade: B-

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Classic Corner — Charles Grodin

Charles Grodin might not have been considered a major star in his decades-long career, but he was a talent that made any project he was involved in better. Grodin died Tuesday at the age of 86 of bone marrow cancer, according the Associated Press.

Letterman Appearance

The quick-witted, acerbic actor and comedian starred in memorable films such as “Midnight Run,” “The Heartbreak Kid,” and “Beethoven,” and is remembered fondly for his humorously combative guest appearances on nighttime talks shows featuring Johnny Carson and later David Letterman, where he put on a passive-aggressive front that at first was difficult to distinguish as a gag.

The Heartbreak Kid

“The Heartbreak Kid is a decidedly black comedy featuring Grodin as a sporting goods salesman who falls in love with another woman (Cybill Shepherd) on his honeymoon. Grodin plays against his future type as an overzealous buffoon of sorts who wins Shepherd’s hand, but winds up being ignored and alone at his own wedding. The screenplay by Neil Simon is a classic. The American Film Institute selected the movie as one of its top 100 comedies, and Grodin certainly did his share of the heavy lifting in a cast that included Eddie Albert and Jeannie Berlin, who were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances in the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories.

Midnight Run

“Midnight Run” features Robert De Niro in a classic tough-guy role as bounty hunter Jack Walsh sent to arrest Grodin, who plays accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Marduckas. The Duke has embezzled $15 million from Chicago mobsters in this classic buddy movie. The Duke may be the most unintimidating crook to ever go on the lam, but he has Walsh ruing the day he ever heard The Duke’s name half way through the film.

The job sounds easy enough to Walsh: Track down The Duke and bring him back to Los Angeles within five days. But little does Walsh know that Grodin’s The Duke is one of the most hilariously annoying and neurotic characters ever committed to the screen. The action-comedy is a master class by director Martin Brest on how friction is the driving force of any buddy comedy.

De Niro is great in the movie, but a half a dozen other mid-1980s actors could have pulled off his roll nearly as well; however, I can’t envision anyone but Grodin in the role of The Duke. Grodin helped make what could have been a very ordinary buddy movie into an all-time classic.