The buddy film starring Billy Crystal as Charlie Burnz and Tiffany Hassish as Emma is a change of pace. It is a warm comedy rather than a cold tragedy. Billy Crystal plays what he has always played best – a comic version of himself. And he directs as well. He is an old-style stand-up comic working as a writer on the equivalent of Saturday Night Live among a gaggle of young comics less than half his age. He and Tiffany, a street performer and jazz singer aspiring to be a stage artist, form a fast friendship – fast both in the sense that it took very little time to gel and fast in the sense of firm and deep.
When Tiffany introduces Billy to her ex-boyfriend, who is a fan of Billy, the latter invites Tiffany to be his “date” at his granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. She accepts on condition that he dance with her. He replies that he is a very poor dancer, indeed, a very dangerous dancer, the only person he knows who carries “mambo insurance.” But she insists. He accepts on condition that she wear a football helmet and pads. When you write the one-liners down, they do not seem very funny. But when Billy delivers them, they are hilarious.
Why? Because although the lines are smart-alecky and witty, they are also authentic, expressing real emotion underneath. Secondly, they are expressed with “the lightness of being.” Tragedy is heavy and the challenge is to lighten it up so that we do not drown in despair. Comedy is inherently light and the challenge is to turn air into helium and make the balloon rise faster and higher until it is out of sight. Third, comedy requires a comic situation. As older comic with early onset dementia befriending, indeed, falling in love in a way, with a young vibrant jazz singer who gives him energy, appreciates his talent and restores for him a sense of vitality even as she expresses a deep sensitivity for his situation, is a joy to watch. The redemption comes naturally; a melodramatic situation is raised to the level of a romantic comedy.
Their first real informal date is at a wax museum where Billy can demonstrate his imitation and comic skills of the various characters on display. But his comic skills make these wax figures live again in your memory. It is a movie full of “honest laughter.” Watch Billy’s autobiographical show, 700 Sundays (2204), which is also available on streaming, and you can see much more apparently how Crystal relies so much on authenticity to make his comic sketches work.
Here Today may be about the transitory nature of life. But that life is given meaning by love and relationships that have a positive outcome even as we watch the early stages in which a clever, sensitive and well-informed man decline into senility.
Bob Rae sent me a sketch, indeed an evening in Stratford Ontario (https://youtu.be/7b4hi5bjkEY), following a performance of Macbeth in 2016, which filmed a mock appeal to three real Canadian supreme court justices on behalf of Macbeth and his wife. Bob Rae performs as the “expert witness” and, it turns out that although he is not a Billy Crystal, he is authentically a brilliant sit-down comic. Placing Macbeth within a comic frame also turns out to be very revealing about the play itself.
Comedy is very hard to do but when it is done well, there is no better remedy when you are recovering from covid.