“Here Now” is pretty corny and old-fashioned and rings closer to television than feature film. It’s also warmhearted, funny and entertaining with some melancholy stretches. It contains few surprises but gives you a lot more than you thought you’d walk away with.
Normally I’d probably give something like this a middling review, but I confess I have soft spot in my heart for Billy Crystal, who’s had a lovely career and was so great hosting the Oscars, back when they did that. He’s aged into grandpa roles gracefully, although if you look like Billy Crystal and not Harrison Ford, what choice do you really have?
He plays Charlie Berns, a legendary comedy writer, although “legendary” for comedy writers rarely means rich and famous. He’s had a few hit plays, a couple of memorable movies, a handful of books. Mostly he’s known as the senior writer on “This Just In,” a Saturday Night Live-esque live television show.
The set-up is that Charlie is suffering from a form of dementia that is robbing him of his ability to write and think clearly. But then he unexpectedly meets Emma, played by Tiffany Haddish, who has oodles of screen presence.
Charlie agreed to participate in a “have lunch with a celebrity” fundraiser, and is mortified to find out the winning bid was only $22, and she didn’t even bid herself but stole the ticket from her lousy ex-boyfriend. Despite this, and a memorable meal, they become close friends.
Perhaps lovers? you’re thinking, and that would be the most obvious movie thing to do, despite the 30-year age difference of the stars. I’ll just say that the film, which Crystal directed and co-wrote with Alan Zweibel based on his short story, dispenses with this choice without dismissing it as totally outside the realm of possibility.
To wit: this is the sort of movie where two people who are an unlikely romantic match have conversations about why they would be so terrible as a couple.
The humor is very broad Borsht Belt, the sort of thing where the actor winds up the pitch and puts it right down the plate, then takes a beat to let the joke sink in and be appreciated. Crystal’s timing is as sharp as ever, and he lands dozens of rat-a-tat zingers like an over-the-hill boxer who can still jab with the best of them.
Haddish plays on her star persona: a smart, brassy Black woman who knows who she is and will take guff from no one. Emma is a singer who performs anywhere she can, from subway stations to hole-in-the-wall clubs, but things are looking up for her band. This forms a crisis point when it becomes clear Charlie needs somebody to look after him, and his relationship with his kids is strained.
Laura Benanti and Penn Badgley play the children, busy professionals and parents themselves. The son is a little closer to him, playing regular tennis matches, but the daughter always seems to have furrowed brows and crossed elbows whenever she’s around.
The film is generally at its best in and around Charlie’s show, capturing the frantic, pirates-of-the-airwaves feel of the best of SNL, which Crystal was on for a minute back in the day. Max Gordon Moore plays Brad, Charlie’s former protégé who’s now running the show and has his back against the younger writers who think Charlie is old and out of touch.
That he is, and he doesn’t get as many sketches on the air as he used to. But Charlie has a good ear for the music of comedy and can’t stand it when the notes are played gracelessly. There’s a running gag about how Charlie can’t stand the way the big star of the show has a tendency to emphasize the wrong words and syllables. And there’s a nice sequence where Charlie takes a struggling young writer (Andrew Durand) under his wing.
There are also some gauzy, heart-tugging flashbacks to Charlie’s memories of his wife, Carrie (a pitch-perfect Louisa Krause), and some contretemps surrounding his granddaughter, Lindsay (Audrey Hsieh), who’s about to have her bat mitzvah and is having the usual teen conflicts with her mom, which threatens to widen the gulf Charlie already has with his daughter.
Crystal called in some favors with some old showbiz buddies who show up in cameos playing themselves including Sharon Stone, Kevin Kline, Bob Costas, Itzhak Perlman and Barry Levinson.
The stuff about dementia isn’t the strong suit of “Here Today” -- Crystal isn’t about to be confused with Anthony Hopkins -- but the onscreen vibe between him and Haddish is reassuring and has all the feels. The movie’s a little too long and a bit of a mess, but the sort of untidiness you see in a comfortable house you’re always up for a visit to.