BAXTER — There’s generally nothing funny about dementia.
That is unless you’re Billy Crystal, who directed, co-wrote and costars with Tiffany Haddish in “Here Today,” a dramedy about a veteran comedy writer whose mental acuity isn’t what it used to be.
Crystal plays Charlie Burnz, a staffer on a “Saturday Night Live”-type show, who was bid on at a celebrity auction by the ex-boyfriend of Emma Payge, played by Haddish. The New York singer hasn’t a clue as to who Burnz is but meets up with him at a luncheon to get back at her ex.
Burnz has had an illustrious career writing for Broadway and movies, too. And later in the movie, there are cameos from some Hollywood icons to lend an air of authenticity to the film.
Thanks to a seafood allergy at the meet-and-greet luncheon, Payge is hospitalized without insurance, leaving Burnz, who she claims is her father, on the hook for paying her medical bills.
Payge recovers from their disastrous, intergenerational hookup at the restaurant, and the uninsured performer insists on periodically stopping by to repay him for his generosity.
She soon ingratiates herself in his life, especially because he is estranged from his daughter Francine, played with frostiness or aloofness in an anxiety-filled performance by Laura Benanti.
The nature of the strained relationship between father and daughter is gradually revealed through flashbacks regarding the early married life between Burnz and his late wife.
The unlikely bond between Payge and Burnz in the new movie from Sony Pictures takes center stage in the PG-13 film, which was inspired by the short story “The Prize” by Alan Zweibel.
Burnz reveals to Payge, a perfect stranger he met over lunch, the nature of his deteriorating mental health but he can’t come clean to Francine and his son, played by Penn Badgley.
Time is of the essence so as Payge volunteers to take care of Burnz, she urges him to disclose the nature of his forgetfulness and absentmindedness to his children before it’s too late.
The motion picture is set beautifully in and around New York City, a cinematic locale Crystal knows all too well, especially with his classic rom-com “When Harry Met Sally.” The 1989 picture directed by Rob Reiner — better known to some of the older generations as Meathead in the 1970s CBS TV series “All in the Family” — was nominated for an Oscar.
Crystal also famously made people laugh in the comedy “City Slickers.” The 1991 Western about a family man with a midlife crisis who decides to go on a cattle drive is unforgettable.
“Here Today” aims to make audiences laugh and cry in equal measure although the feature film could arguably do so with a more deft, nuanced and assured director at the helm.
But there’s something to be said for mining pain for humor — the slip on the banana peel, the classic spit-take of water through a person’s nose, the pie in the face are just a few examples.
Someone once said, “humor is pain plus time,” which in retrospect one can likely find the funny even in the most distressing moments and the ability to do so is a sign of resilience or a way to cope.
Except Burnz doesn’t have as much time as he would like to make amends or to atone for past sins, as he painfully and poignantly comes to realize.
"I’m writing something, and I have to finish before my words run out."
— Charlie Burnz, a veteran comedy writer with dementia
“I’m writing something, and I have to finish before my words run out,” Burnz confides in Payge.
As one who writes for a living and has more of his life behind him than ahead of him, Burnz’s words resonate with me. And judging by the 94% approval rating among audiences at Rotten Tomatoes, a review-aggregation website, the new movie seems to resonate with moviegoers.