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Billy Crystal’s Here Today is the kind of movie that you really want to like. In addition to the fact that it’s been 20 years since we’ve seen Crystal direct (his last effort being the excellent 2001 HBO baseball drama 61*), the multitalented filmmaker/actor remains as charming as ever in front of the camera, and he finds a wonderful new on-screen partner in Tiffany Haddish – with whom he shares some sweet chemistry. What’s unfortunate is how much heavy lifting that desire ultimately has to do. As funny and emotional as it can be in its best moments, the material at times feels tonally confused, and due to rote plotting that is overstuffed with the familiar, it never digs deep enough to make you walk away with more than an appreciation for its characters and its basic messaging about family and memory.

Giving the star a perfect chance to be basically play an extension of his charming and clever self, Here Today features Billy Crystal as lauded comedy veteran Charlie Berns. After a decades-long and award-winning career, Charlie works as a senior writer on a sketch series called This Just In, plays regular tennis games with his architect son (Penn Badgley), and tries to be the best grandfather he can be despite having a cold relationship with his daughter (Laura Benanti). What none of his colleagues or family members know, however, is that he has been diagnosed with dementia, which means that he is not only slowly losing his memories, but also that he occasionally forgets where he is and the people he is talking to.

Where things take a twist for Charlie is when he encounters Emma Payge (Tiffany Haddish), a young woman who has no idea who he is, but winds up having lunch with him because of an auctioned meet-and-greet that was won by her ex-boyfriend. A shellfish-related incident results in Emma needing to be rushed to the emergency room, and while for a moment the protagonist writes it off simply as a strange encounter, that notion is thrown out the window when she becomes insistent that he let her pay him back for the hospital bills (say what you will about America’s horrible healthcare system, at the very least it continues to be a great conflict-generator in movies and television).

Enjoying the new presence in his life, Charlie starts to get close with Emma – though doing so gives her the opportunity to peek behind the curtain of his life and learn the truth about what he’s dealing with. While this is distressful for him at first, it also means that she can try and help him, specifically with a book that he wants to write about his late wife, Carrie (Louisa Krause), before all of his memories of her fade away.

While Here Today shows a lot of promise in its story, it doesn't quite work as well as it should.

Co-written by Billy Crystal and Alan Zweibel (and based on Zweibel’s short story “The Prize”), Here Today is a tremendously earnest film in that it clearly possesses an ambition to give audiences a greater understanding of what life can be like for individuals dealing with similar conditions, and the empathy with which it’s made is a wonderful thing. It’s a sweet movie that never feels saccharine or manipulative… but it is also hampered by the fact that it is remarkably simple and exactly what you think it is.

As delightful as Charlie and Emma are together, their unexpected friendship doesn’t exactly expand on the trope, and instead just plays out all of the beats you’d expect from the generation gap setup (from the awkward question of romantic entanglement, to the question of whether or not she should put her own ambitions on hold for him). And if you’re already predicting some kind of hidden tragedy and guilt involving his late wife, then you are right on the money.

The real knife twist, though, are all of the interesting avenues that Here Today sets up but then never journeys down. Early in the film, Charlie remarks that he first became a writer because when he was younger he liked taking the truth and turning it into something more interesting – and while that seems like it would be a fascinating thing to dovetail with a story about memory loss, nothing ultimately comes of it. Later there is a scene where the head writer of This Just In (Max Gordon Moore) is put in a position to defend Charlie’s place on the staff given his legendary history, and while you think it’s going to lead to some kind of behind-the-scenes professional conflict, the movie instead winds up veering in a totally different and more confusing direction involving an on-camera eruption.

Here Today's tone doesn't always quite click with the story being told.

While I won’t specifically detail what happens in that eruption for spoiler reasons, it’s a scene in Here Today that also highlights another significant issue, which is the movie’s occasionally disjointed tone. The movie does, for the most part, know when to play things light and when to play things dark, but there are moments where it mixes up its signals, and it’s hard to tell what it’s going for. The teased outburst is the most significant example, but the same could also be said about a scene where Charlie is on a stage for a Q&A with Barry Levinson, Sharon Stone, and Kevin Kline (all playing themselves) and he begins to forget their names. The problem never gets so bad as to undermine the overall tenor of the film, but it does make it spotty.

Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish make a sweet pair and a charismatic duo.

With Charlie Berns having a personality and comedic background akin to Billy Crystal’s, Here Today doesn’t exactly provide a vessel for a big, showy performance from the star (save for the occasional vacant, middle-distance stare), and Tiffany Haddish is very clearly cast to be her brash, vivacious self – but just because the material doesn’t quite challenge the actors doesn’t detract from it, and the duo have fun, natural chemistry that lends verisimilitude to their friendship. The cynical part of your brain may tell you that these two individuals wouldn’t spend time together, but Crystal and Haddish click with their very different styles, but clear knowledge of funny. Their banter is the highlight of the movie, as their voices mesh well, and while the dialogue does at times seem hampered by the aimed-for PG-13 rating, the film gets its laughs without cursing or going blue.

The greatest worry going into a movie like Here Today is the concern that the sweetness and the heartfelt drama will leave audiences in diabetic coma, and that’s a line that the film walks well thanks to its dynamic stars and sharp comedic sensibilities (nearly half a century into his professional acting career, Billy Crystal’s timing remains as impeccable as ever). The movie is also let down by its messy script that falls short of making the full impact that it is clearly going for. It’s cute and passable, but also a movie that you won’t be able to identify from its title alone in a year’s time.

6 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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