Film & TV

When Oldie Met Sally

Billy Crystal arrives for the 30th anniversary screening of “When Harry Met Sally” in Hollywood, California. April 11, 2019. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
Billy Crystal’s carbon-dated comedy Here Today sets a new standard of cringe.

The idea of a heartwarming comedy about aging in which Billy Crystal plays the oldster and Tiffany Haddish serves as his sweet-natured helpmeet is so retro it’s practically reactionary. Overthinking matters a bit, I assumed the movie would have to be a comedy masterpiece just to have gotten made.

My mistake.

Here Today is exactly what it appears to be: a 1989 movie inexplicably dropped upon us citizens of 2021. The jokes are 1989, the theme is 1989, the musical score and the slow pace and the romantic flashback sequences filmed like a Summer’s Eve commercial are all strictly Eighties. At the outset I thought maybe I was watching a parody of 1989 Hollywood style set back in the pre-Internet age: Here comes a joke about Stephen Hawking doing stand-up comedy which would have worked in 1989 but doesn’t seem to take into account that he has now been dead for three years.

But people use iPhones in the movie, so, no.

Here Today is directed by Crystal, who co-wrote the script with Alan Zweibel, one of the first generation of Saturday Night Live writers, and together these men are 143 years old. You’d never suspect it, though; you’d think that separately they’re 143 years old. There are so many layers of cringe to this movie that it’s like a cringe pastry, a cringe wedding cake — no, a cringe skyscraper. Crystal and Zweibel don’t even recognize how far comedy has shifted since their respective SNL stints, and evidently no one had the heart to tell them.

For instance, writers who came of age in the era of color television probably know better than to write a script about an imaginary sassy black best friend, a free spirit who nevertheless drops everything to help a white person in need and has so little going on in her own life that she can spend her days coming around to laugh at your jokes, attend your granddaughter’s Saturday night bat mitzvah on short notice, and spoon you at night when you get lonely. I can’t stress this enough: I love Billy Crystal, I love old-Jewish-guy humor, and hence I am the target audience for this movie. Yet I watched every mortifying scene like filmgoer George C. Scott reacting adversely to a cinematic effort in Hardcore. (“Turn if off. Turn it off. TURN IT OFF!!!!!”)

Crystal’s character Charlie Burnz — yeah, with a z — is a fantasy version of Zweibel. Charlie is an Emmy and Tony-winning comedy writer in Brooklyn, who, pitifully, writes on a desk that displays his Emmy and Tony awards, underneath a sad wall of pictures showcasing his handshakes with famous people, using a sad manual typewriter. At the SNL-style show where he writes, we can see that all of his ideas are cringe, and yet the movie treats him as a comedy genius whose insights help younger writers realize their potential. During a live performance of the show, he goes on a Howard Beale rant that, for the audience, looks a lot like an unfortunate spasm of anti-comedy delivered by a geezer having the most embarrassing conceivable moment that doesn’t involve a pair of Depends. Crystal and Zweibel think the scene illustrates what a gift to comedy Burnz is, just as they think what 13-year-old girls really want to hear at a Bat Mitzvah is a Boomer Rock song (one by Janis Joplin, who was dead a decade before such kids’ parents were born). There’s a joke about a toupee coming off, a joke about constipation, a sight gag that has Haddish inexplicably tumbling into a row of garbage cans, and a bit that imagines Einstein saying, “The theory of relativity is: Never lend your relatives money.” Crystal delivers this line to Haddish’s Emma Payge (yep, with a y), his new pal, while crouching behind a statue of Einstein at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. The two of them thus become the first two New Yorkers ever to visit Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum.

How did this unlikely pair come to spend all their time together? Well, I’ll tell you. For a charity auction, Charlie has agreed to have lunch with the highest bidder, and that bidder turned out to be Emma’s boyfriend, a fan of Charlie Burnz, but then they broke up, so Emma got the lunch date even though she’d never heard of the writer and the winning bid was . . . $22. Apparently this actually happened to Zweibel. Is a crushing wave of sadness overtaking you yet? I had more laughs at Long Day’s Journey into Night. Emma winds up in the hospital with a shellfish allergy, Charlie pays her bill, then she starts orienting her entire life around him because what else would a vivacious black woman such as Tiffany Haddish do but go into orbit around a tiresomely not-funny old white guy experiencing early-stage dementia? She even becomes his caregiver, though this is not her profession (she’s a cabaret singer) and there seems to be no question of money. That’s fine, though. There’s nothing at all awkward about black people working without pay for white people.

Flashbacks hint at a deep dark secret in Charlie’s past that turns out to be the kind of twist a 1989 TV-movie writer would dismiss as sheer hackery, but these scenes do add to the cringe party by bringing in, as Charlie Burnz’s (Burnz’z?) love interest, Louisa Krause’s Carrie. Krause, an actress who is in her early 30s, but looks about 26, gets seen from Charlie’s point of view, which means we get treated to a 73-year-old Crystal talking sexy talk with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter, building to a moment in which she wields a stick of Land o’ Lakes saying, “It seems a shame to waste the butter on my foot. Come here. . . .” Like I said: Turn it off. TURN IT OFF!!!

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