Over his comic lifetime, Billy Crystal has made more people laugh in more venues than just about anybody alive. Stand-up to sitcom, “Saturday Night Live” to Oscar host, one-man Broadway show to movies, he’s created and forgotten more characters and laughs than any mere mortal could ever remember.
So he’s earned the indulgence of a movie — more than a few — that simply don’t work. Well, he certainly thinks so.
That’s what “Here Today,” an indulgence about a comedy legend indulged with a head writer gig with a TV sketch show, a guy who’s lost his fastball, curveball and spitball and who is hiding the fact that he’s losing his memories to dementia.
Crystal stars in it, directed and co-wrote the adaptation of an Alan Zweibel (“SNL,” “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”), playing a comedy icon who might be a shell of his former self, but hoping to hang on to just enough of himself to get through a memoir. His best hope? This stranger (Tiffany Haddish) who won lunch with him at a charity auction.
Whatever else Crystal accomplishes with this movie, he’s created a nice half-normal “acting” job for Haddish, who sheds some of her wild-woman persona to play a singer with a cover-band specializing in jazz novelty tunes (Fats Wallers’ “Your Feet’s Too Big,” etc.), someone who doesn’t know who this guy she always addresses as “old man” is, but who sees the signs and takes a compassionate interest in his well-being.
The movie surrounding them? It flirts with “insipid,” and is about as funny as a teenager’s funeral.
The best laugh for this story of a writer who pushes his half-awed junior writers to look for “the right kind of laugh,” is a sight gag — a digital bit of face contortion meant to mimic SOMEbody’s shellfish allergy at that awkward “meet cute” lunch. The worst? Almost everything else.
Comic polymath Charlie Burnz, who keeps post-it notes on pictures of his family so he won’t forget their names, talks Emma the singer into visiting New York’s version of Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. They can’t find so much as a giggle among wax statues of the famous and infamous.
The running gag of the TV show “This Just In” where Charlie is the producer’s mentor and eminence grise to the “kids,” is that one performer has such tin-eared intonation that he ruins many a sketch and pretty much every punchline — “SUB-peona,” “MITCH McConnell.”
Charlie mentors a struggling Harvard Lampoon alum whose sketches are failing to get on the air, and even the “improved” sketches are painfully unfunny. Nobody in those scenes, from the writer’s room to the “live” performances, is remotely funny.
It’s like the comic icon who made the Oscars he hosted all about him was too insecure to cast anybody else, other than Haddish, who’d make an impression. Cameos by Sharon Stone, Kevin Kline, Barry Levinson and Bob Costas, playing themselves in a “tribute,” merit a smirk, at best.
Those cast as Charlie’s not-quite-estranged family (Penn Badgley and Laura Benanti play his kids, Louisa Krause his late wife in flashbacks) barely register. Actress-playwright Anna Deveare Smith plays his sober-minded doctor.
The script is littered with — literally — throw-away jokes from the last century. “There’s this new invention called a ‘computer.’ You might want to try it.” “Throw-away line” is too generous a description for much of it. “Litter.”
But Haddish, toned down and not trying too hard, brings an offhand charm to Emma. Haddish isn’t much of a singer, but she’s game and confident and puts over a cover of “A Little Piece of My Heart” at Charlie’s grand-kid’s bat mitzvah that makes us wish the movie was about her, struggling to make a go of it with a seven piece cover-band in the Big Apple.
The over-arching theme here is cherish the memories you’ve acquired over a lifetime, the good and the bad. Because they’re “Here Today” and gone tomorrow. Our memories of Billy Crystal won’t be tarnished by one more unamusing, heartburn-not-heartwarming comedy.
But there’s no denying the evidence on the screen. He USED to be funny.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for strong language, and sexual references.
Cast: Billy Crystal, Tiffany Haddish, Anna Deveare Smith, Penn Badgley, and Nyambi Nyambi
Credits: Directed by Billy Crystal, script by Alan Zweibel and Billy Crystal, based on a short story by Zweibel. A Sony/Stage 6 release.
Running time: 1:57