In ‘Here Today,’ Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish give us the Jewish story we weren’t looking for
At the Schmooze, we watch a lot of movies about Jews. But we also spend a lot of time waiting with bated breath for stories about Jews.
We wait for stories in which Jews aren’t ancient heroes or stoic sufferers or caricature-ish sidekicks that set off all your internal alarms. Stories in which Jewish milestones aren’t exotic events but just normal things that some people do. Stories in which Jews aren’t fighting for the survival of their tribe or fighting to leave it but just living their modern lives and happening to be Jewish at the same time.
When I saw the trailer for “Here Today,” a family dramedy starring notable Jews Tiffany Haddish and Billy Crystal, I thought I had happened upon one such story. But I got through about 10 minutes of the film before I realized it wasn’t quite what I wanted.
The film stars Crystal (who also directed) as Charlie Berns, an emeritus comedy writer on an SNL-esque sketch show who is slowly succumbing to dementia while struggling to prevent anyone around him from finding out about his disease. Berns knows time is running out, and he has a lot on his plate: He needs to write his memoirs, attend his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah, and make up with his children Francine (Laura Benanti) and Rex (a very bearded Penn Badgley and honestly the highlight of the film), who are still resentful of his absent-dad parenting style.
Enter Emma Payge (Haddish), a free-spirited aspiring singer who befriends Berns at a chance lunch involving a near fatal seafood reaction (don’t ask) and, for no explicable reason, decides to fix everything in his life. In between developing a strenuously platonic May-December friendship and visiting nearly every landmark in New York City (one wonders, while watching the pair bond during a trip to the Hudson Yards Vessel, what kind of subsidies this movie received), Emma helps Charlie reconcile with his children and record his memories before it’s too late.
“Here Today” does feature a lot of Jewish content, in funny and sometimes surprising ways. There’s a synagogue which the Schmooze immediately knew was Reform, because the rabbi says things like “Chai five!” During the bat mitzvah scene, no one proffers a clunky explanation of the hora — if you know, as the saying goes, you know. The bat mitzvah girl, Francine’s daughter Lindsey (Audrey Hsieh), is Asian and presumably adopted (both her parents are white), a casting choice that tacitly affirms the oft-contested legitimacy of Jews of color.
While Emma isn’t Jewish, Haddish herself worked as a bar mitzvah “motivator” in her pre-fame days and, as an adult, discovered she had Eritrean Jewish heritage, eventually becoming a bat mitzvah with Crystal, a real-life friend, standing beside her at the bima. Some scenes — like an exchange in which Emma remarks she’s “never been to a bat mitzvah” and a moment when she rallies flagging guests onto the dance floor — seem like winking nods to Haddish’s own Jewish story.
But “Here Today” is also so irredeemably schlocky that it’s depiction of dementia often feels farcical. This is not the sensitively self-contained drama of “Still Alice,” or the sumptuously tragic love story in “Supernova,” released just last year. The plot of “Here Today” hinges on characters doing things that in real life would likely result in lawsuits but, in the universe of the movie, play out to lukewarm comedic effect. These incidents include (but are not limited to!): Administering an EpiPen with no medical qualifications, climbing into a sleeping acquaintance’s bed, commandeering the DJ booth at a child’s bat mitzvah, breaking into an abandoned lake house and calling a professional subordinate a “dumb turd” on live television. Regrettably, the only remotely realistic scene occurs during the bat mitzvah, when Francine suspiciously interrogates Emma, the only Black woman in the room. Ironically, the remarkably good Jewish notes in “Here Today” throw into greater relief the mushy sentimentality with which it approaches every other theme.
The Schmooze will admit that, against our will and all our intellectual pretensions, we felt kind of moved by the last, tearful minutes of “Here Today.” (We won’t spoil the ending, but we will say that the final scenes look like a montage of stock photos compiled by someone who wants to sell you something on Instagram.) But mostly, we felt disappointed. There were so many Jewish moments, and we wanted them to tell us something about what it means to be a loving and flawed parent, or to live with a degenerative illness, or even just to make a new friend.
But they didn’t. And without a real story behind it, there’s no amount of Yiddishkeit that can earn this movie a “chai five.”