There’s “Saturday Night Live” linkage in the new dramedy “Here Today” starring and directed by Billy Crystal who joined the cast of the sketch comedy show in 1984. Original SNL writer Alan Zweibel wrote the screenplay along with Crystal based on a personal experience he had which became the short story “The Prize.” Finally, it was comedian Tiffany Haddish’s first hosting duty on SNL that caught the attention of both men who knew she would be perfect as NYC singer Emma Page who wins an auction to have lunch with comedy legend Charlie Burnz (Crystal). The pair form an unlikely bond in the heartwarming film that covers territory that just won Anthony Hopkins an Oscar.
Charlie Burnz is a veteran comedy writer and the prize for the highest bidder at a celebrity auction that promises lunch with Charlie. Emma Page, an aspiring New York singer, is the lucky prizewinner (well, sort of) whose lunch date with the celebrity writer goes from bad to worse in what becomes the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“I’m flattered that a fan of your age would be a fan of my work” Charlie comments to his lunch date. “I don’t know who the hell you are” Emma responds, informing him that it was her ex-boyfriend who won the auction, “He really wanted to meet you, so he bid.” When Charlie asks, “How much?” Emma responds “22.” Charlie lights up with excitement knowing that he raised $2,200 for a charitable cause but then Emma informs him it was $22, “It started out at 20 and then it went up in .50 cent increments.”
In a funny scene, Emma orders the largest seafood salad imaginable. As she stuffs her face with shrimp, mussels and lobster tails, Charlie notices that one of her eyes is smaller than the other and her lips have swollen. “Oh my God are you allergic to seafood?” he asks. Her incoherent mumbling confirms and soon Charlie is at the hospital shelling out $1,200 to pay for Emma’s ER visit and the epi-pen used to treat her.
The auctioned lunch date, which became the genesis of the film, really happened to writer Alan Zweibel who recounted that memorable evening on David Letterman. Crystal was planning on doing a movie about a friendship between an older guy and a younger woman and after hearing the story, knew it would make a great starting point for “Here Today.”
Emma pays Charlie back in increments and the two form a friendship. One day she notices on his bulletin board that Charlie has pictures of his relatives with attached Post-It notes listing their names. It’s the first sign of the film’s underlying theme, dementia. Later, at a special 30th-anniversary screening Q&A, Charlie becomes confused, forgetting the names of fellow panelists Sharon Stone, Kevin Kline, and director Barry Levinson who appear in the cameo that helps Emma put two and two together.
Eventually, Charlie opens up to Emma as his condition worsens. She informs his doctor (Anna Deveare Smith), “I’ll take care of him” prompting the doc to ask, “What’s your relationship?” They both look at each other and answer in unison, “I don’t know.” We know that it’s not a romantic relationship as Emma warns Charlie throughout the film, “I’d break your back old man.” But still there is a mutual fondness shared by the two which causes anxiety with Charlie’s grown kids Rex (Penn Badgley) and especially Francine (Laura Benanti) who never forgave her dad for the way he handled her mother’s tragic death.
The last time Billy Crystal stepped behind the camera to direct was 2001 for the Roger Maris-Mickey Mantle film “61.” Now, two decades later, he returns with a moving film that despite its weighty themes delivers plenty of funny moments thanks to Tiffany Haddish, the film’s comedic epicenter.
Crystal is the kind of person who can find comedy in any situation and perfectly balance the contrasting themes thereby delivering laughs mixed with heartfelt emotions that remain respectable to the material. The key to making this work is never going too far in either direction. It’s great seeing Crystal on-screen once again after so many memorable performances in films that include “City Slickers” and “When Harry Met Sally” but make no mistake Tiffany Haddish is the MVP who keeps the story funny and balanced.