The doctor asks, “May I ask what your relationship is?” And Tiffany Haddish and Billy Crystal — whose roles in their new comedy Here Today are more fun to imagine if you pretend the actors are playing themselves, so we’ll keep calling them Tiffany Haddish and Billy Crystal — say, in unison, “I dunno.” It’s one of the running, mild jokes of the movie that people can’t quite seem to make up their minds as to what’s going on between this unlikely-seeming pair. They’re either too polite to assume the obvious or too rude not to. Hence the fun in imagining that Haddish and Crystal are playing themselves — fun which, because the movie more or less gets lost in its own, sticky-sweet emotional sauce, the audience may as well sneak into the proceedings on their own, like contraband snacks.
So. Haddish and Crystal: a couple? Certainly they’re together often. Haddish uses Crystal to make an ex-boyfriend jealous, which stings all the more for her ex being the reason she befriended the older man to begin with. Crystal brings Haddish as a date to his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah, to the utter distress of his daughter Francine (Laura Benanti) and the bemusement of his son Rex (Penn Badgley), so-named because he was born in a museum, under a T-Rex skeleton. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. Gently humorous and often cute, until its most saccharine instincts take the wheel. It’s a welcome dash of rom-com nostalgia, too, harkening back to those New Yorky, stroll-in-the-park Billy Crystal romances of yore, with their tamped-down chaos and likable personalities; movies in which it always seems to be fall — the chill in the air fresh, the leaves a lush orange, no one sweaty and disgusting, none of the city’s landmarks overcrowded.
But Here Today is a curiosity, too, precisely because of the attractively uneven qualities of its stars, and because of what the movie does and doesn’t make of them. I’ll spoil it: They aren’t a couple. Maybe that’s because the May-December romance narrative is a bit played or because, as Crystal recently said, the comedy scene nowadays is a “minefield”; maybe it’s because the idea of sexual chemistry between these two actors simply wouldn’t make sense, even if that idea does have the makings of a great satire.
Whatever the reason, Here Today is more friend-romance than romance, and because of that it has the benefit of putting two naturally funny, charismatic stars in each others’ orbit for no other reason than because the cameras are rolling. Good enough for me. Haddish and Crystal do go through a good chunk of the usual movie-couple motions, though, minus the bedroom variety. They have a meet-cute in which, not recognizing who Crystal is, Haddish holds a Wikipedia page up to the face of every older white gentleman in a restaurant to find him — a classic case of white guy face-blindness. Her character, Emma Payge, winds up in the hospital (long story), and Charlie Berns (Crystal), winds up footing the bill. It’s not exactly star-cross’d, but paying Charlie back in increments from the money she makes doing singing gigs gives Emma an excuse to keep showing up and getting to know the guy.
We, on the other hand, only grow too acquainted with Charlie, a semi-famous comedy writer for an SNL-like show who, flashbacks to better and worse times in his life tell us, has suffered some great tragedy. He is also, we learn early on, suffering from early stage dementia. This dilemma is ultimately what sits at the core of the movie — to a fault, really, because of how the script (co-written by Crystal and Alan Zweibel, an original writer on Saturday Night Live) weaves it the rest of the story. The half of Here Today that goes down easy is by and large the Haddish half, with a few helpings of scenes set at Charlie’s job, in a writer’s room, that aren’t really funny, but are likable easygoing, hitting the right notes in the right way at the right time. Haddish, a comic force that can unleash a whirlwind when she wants to, keeps a lid on her wilder talents here, but not so much so that she can’t make Crystal blush, as with her jokes about how, if they did have sex, she’d break his back — she’s just too much for the guy.
She really is, isn’t she? Inevitably, the movie is most interested in Charlie, and while Emma is hardly a mere accessory, she’s too vibrant a force to remain so little-known by the end of the movie. She makes a selfless choice late in the plot which, instead of moving us, only draws attention to how little of that “self” had entered the picture, to begin with. It’s of a piece with what makes Here Today a likable but unmistakable misfire, proving unsatisfying for the narrowed-in view of the story it’s most committed to telling: about Charlie, his illness, and the family dilemma running parallel to that illness. A climactic scene, played at the expense of one of the SNL-wannabes (and sort of funny to imagine as a bit of shade toward the real Saturday Night Live), loses the thread when its mild comedy morphs into totalizing dementia melodrama, a high in the movie conceived only to knock Charlie back down to the lowest of lows. This is too bad for a movie that’s good enough at the smaller things: Charlie’s mentorship of a soft spoken colleague who has potential, his friendship with Emma, cute cameos from the likes of Itzhak Perlman. The movie certainly has heart; its purpose is unmistakable. But the spark — for which it has all the necessary ingredients — is somehow missing.