Tiffany Haddish and Billy Crystal in Here Today

HERE TODAY

As it had been such a long time since I last saw Billy Crystal in a major film role (that would've been opposite Bette Midler in 2012's Parental Guidance), I was initially semi-psyched for his starring turn in Here Today, which also marks the comedian's first feature-length directorial effort since HBO's first-rate baseball drama 61* back in 2001. Now I'm kind of wishing the wait had been longer. While there are certainly more noxious performance traits than an obvious, incessant need to be loved, Crystal expends so much energy strong-arming us for adoration and sympathy in this sentimental dramedy that I occasionally found it hard to even look at him. At least Tiffany Haddish is on hand to occasionally make the guy look good – and by “good,” I really mean “less insufferable.”

You know a movie is stacking the deck in favor of its hero when most everyone else on-screen spends their time remarking on how sweet and funny and legendary the man is, and the only characters who don't are pinch-faced party poopers with no apparent senses of humor. So consider this decked stacked. With Crystal's and Alan Zweibel's screenplay based on the latter's short story “The Prize,” Here Today finds its star playing Charlie Burns, an iconic NYC writer currently on staff for a Saturday Night Live-esque sketch-comedy series. (Among the décor in Charlie's apartment are Emmy and Tony Awards – anyone wanna bet they're Crystal's actual trophies on display?) Worshiped by his producer (Brandon Uranowitz), warmly treated by his physician (a marvelously down-to-earth Anna Deveare Smith), and clearly admired by the general public, septuagenarian Charlie would seem to have it all. Alas, he also has gradually worsening dementia, a condition he hides from both his co-workers and his adult children – the aforementioned humorless party poopers – Francine (Laura Benanti) and Rex (Penn Badgley).

But Charlie does find an accidental soulmate with the arrival of Emma Payge (Haddish), a roaming jazz/rock singer who meets the writer under circumstances too ludicrous to be believed. (They involve an insulting charity-auction bid and a “wacky” allergic reaction to seafood.) It doesn't take long for Emma to be the one non-doctor in Charlie's life aware of his failing memory, and as the two form a fast and tight friendship, the free-spirited chanteuse helps her wisecracking elder negotiate his personal and professional hardships. Picture The Father as a mediocre TV sitcom in which you can hear the laugh-track even though there isn't one, and you'll pretty much know what you're in for.

While nobody expects Billy Crystal to be Anthony Hopkins, I'll admit that I was happily taken with Tiffany Haddish in Olivia Colman mode. The screenwriters barely bother to give Emma any backstory, and as soon as she effectively volunteers to be Charlie's caretaker, her live-wire presence practically vanishes except in regard to how Emma can appease Charlie's suffering. Yet Haddish's speedy, sardonic readings are amusing despite her lackluster material, and her playful crooning and audience rapport are superb; you totally believe that Emma could make a living busking on street corners, in subway terminals, and at the occasional downtown lounge. (Emma's impromptu rendition of Janis Joplin's “Piece of My Heart,” performed during Charlie's granddaughter's bat mitzvah, is a legitimate show-stopper.) Best of all, Haddish is so firmly in character, and plays her role with such disarming sincerity, that you truly buy Here Today's odd-couple dynamic. You don't just sense that Emma likes Charlie. You sense that Haddish absolutely digs Crystal, and vice versa, and the film's director/co-writer/star is never more appealing than when he and Haddish are just shooting the breeze and eating ice cream and joshing their way through Madame Tussauds. We've heard Crystal deliver these sorts of gags before, but with Haddish as their appreciative audience, they suddenly sound more endearing than they have in ages.

Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish in Here Today

Endearing, however, isn't the same as funny, and Here Today falters nearly every time it isn't strictly the Billy-and-Tiffany show. For whatever reason, movies and TV are notoriously weak at demonstrating the art of comedians actually working to get their laughs, and both the behind-the-scenes strategizing and the on-air segments at Charlie's faux-SNL gig are abjectly awful; you're not convinced that this purported “number-one series on cable” would ever make it past four episodes. (In one particularly protracted and repellant sequence, Charlie cruelly mocks a castmate played by Matthew Broussard on live television, and we're meant to find the act charming and hilarious – Charlie momentarily triumphing over his dementia – as opposed to sadistic and sad.) But then again, nothing here really plays the way it should. Our samplings of Charlie's writing talent, including a snippet from his 20-year-old “comedy classic” starring Kevin Kline and Sharon Stone, are so lame that the praise consistently heaped on their author seems tragically misguided. The hostility of Charlie's children feels so oddly disproportionate that the gifted Benanti and Badgley (the latter of whom has become distressingly thin) end up striking terribly awkward notes that, at one point, during that bat mitzvah, even teeter on overt racism. Charlie's habits of dating much-younger women and only working on a portable typewriter can't help but bring to mind Woody Allen … maybe not the Manhattan show-biz icon you necessarily want channeled in 2021. (A romance between Charlie and the half-his-age Emma is threatened but never explored. Cheer or lament that decision as you will.)

Through it all, Crystal mugs and smirks and takes evident delight in his own cleverness like he's again hosting the 2012 Oscars – though this time, mercifully, we're at least denied the sight of the man in blackface. Unfortunately, however, I almost missed Crystal's grating comic impishness whenever Here Today called for him to be dramatic, because forget Anthony Hopkins: Crystal never even approaches Anthony Geary. I won't deny that the man is likely giving his all to the scenes of Charlie weeping on Emma's shoulder and begging his children to forgive him for a long-ago accident that, as he tells his adult kids, he's already forgiven himself for. (Now that'll make them feel better.) Yet while Crystal was never much of an actor even in his heyday, he at least wasn't filling the screen with so much weepy ersatz emotion that it deprived you of the chance to feel anything yourself. The subtext behind all this sobbing and begging is unmistakably “Love me!”, and I wouldn't have found it offensive if I believed for one second that Crystal's tirades were directed at his scene partners rather than his audience. Having Haddish around is terrific, but at this rate, I'm a little concerned that Billy Crystal's chosen co-star for his next film will prove to be a mirror.

Jason Statham and Josh Hartnett in Wrath of Man

WRATH OF MAN

Ever since his freakishly hysterical portrayal of a rogue CIA agent in 2015's Spy, I've been silently (albeit occasionally publicly) begging Jason Statham to make more comedies. But if, instead, the action star and his enviable beard stubble insist on filling their résumés with speeding cars, cascades of bullets, and husky-voiced threats not directed toward Melissa McCarthy, we can at least hope that more of these movies will be in the vein of Guy Ritchie's Wrath of Man, an intensely nasty, excessively violent, completely enjoyable heist thriller that might boast the finest direction of its helmer's career.

Its basic narrative, adapted from the 2004 French release Le Convoyeur, is admirably Statham-simple, telling of an armored-car holdup in Los Angeles that goes disastrously wrong and our Cockney antihero's increasingly grisly attempts to make things right. Yet Wrath of Man's five screenwriters (Ritchie among them) do a masterful job of presenting the crime's chronology so that past and present keep playing leapfrog, tossing us essential nuggets of information regarding who's screwing whom, and how, in ways that continually keep us on our toes. And the film's director handles the time shifts and escalating acts of vengeance with true directorial finesse, establishing a swiftly paced mood of virulent scuzziness without the self-aware humor of such seedy British efforts as Snatch and The Gentlemen. In both form and content, Ritchie's latest is a little bit like Pulp Fiction stripped of jokes. Thankfully, though, that's nowhere near as deadly as it sounds.

With his unblinking eyes burning with murderous rage while his demeanor remains cucumber-cool, Statham is in splendid ass-kicking form, his malignant yet strangely empathetic figure “H” like what you'd get if a Zen Buddhist played Keyser Söze. In a wonderful rarity, though, Statham isn't the only truly magnetic performer in one of his star vehicles, as the subversively exhilarating Wrath of Man also finds room for vibrant, largely menacing turns by Holt McCallany, Jeffrey Donovan, Scott Eastwood, Laz Alonso, Eddie Marsan, Andy Garcia, and, Heaven help us, Josh Hartnett, the formerly ubiquitous male ingénue who may never before have been quite this confident on-screen. Even in such Hollywood-blockbuster bummers as the live-action Aladdin and Robert Downey Jr.'s annoying Sherlock Holmes flicks, it's been clear for decades that Ritchie has talent. His work with Hartnett suggests that he may also be capable of magic.

Raya & the Last Dragon

RAYA & THE LAST DRAGON

I was so heartened to see so many patrons – so many kids – in attendance at my weekend screening of Disney's Raya & the Last Dragon that it killed me that the movie itself wasn't better than it is. Those kids didn't seem to mind, though. Set in what looks like ancient Southeast Asian terrain yet sounds like a 14-year-old's backyard pool party (I may have reflexively winced when our heroine confessed to performing a task “on the regular”), this computer-animated adventure sends its first title character (Kelly Marie Tran) on a quest to gather five shards of broken crystal in order to reunite her world's five warring factions. Raya's slowly expanding posse, meanwhile, includes the second title character – a mystical “water dragon” named Sisu who boasts shiny blue scales, a staggering mane, and the throaty comic timing of Awkwafina. Daring escapades and family-friendly hilarity, as they must, ensue. I only wish they ensued more interestingly, and a lot less shamelessly.

As directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, the film is hardly a tough sit. Its animation is, of course, gorgeous, with each of the five principalities – named after the dragon parts Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon, and Tail – visually distinct in both locale and citizenry. (I dug the chic severity of the Fang women's coifs.) Tran is in excellent vocal form as the fierce, sprightly, motherless (because Disney) heroine, with committed work also contributed by Sandra Oh, Daniel Dae Kim, Izaac Wang, Gemma Chan, and an especially witty Benedict Wong. And although her material places Sisu several plateau beneath, say, Robin Williams' Genie or Ellen DeGeneres' Dory, Awkwafina in in there swinging for laughs; the performer's readings are funny even when her lines aren't.

Yet from the first explanation of why the colonies' war began and how amends might finally be made, even grade-schoolers will likely figure out how the plot will eventually resolve itself down to the most minute details. Despite their animated energy, the daring escapes and scenes of aggressive combat are predictable and repetitive. (Did we really need three separate martial-arts battles between Raya and her female nemesis?) And while we expect Disney's animated offerings to be brazenly tear-jerking, this was one of the studio's movies in which I felt like a jerk for being jerked, having been invited to first coo for a cute baby before laughing at the cute baby's adult deviousness before bawling when the cute baby got turned into stone. Just about everything in Hall's and Estrada's outing is completely passable but sadly lacking in spontaneity and surprise, and the film is accidentally hurt by being preceded by the new Disney short Us Again – a five-minute blast of sound and color and romance and magnificent choreography that's far more inventive, memorable, and moving than the feature-length entertainment that follows. I wasn't crazy about the movie, but had no problem watching Raya & the Last Dragon for 90 admittedly brisk minutes. I could've watched Us Again forever.

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