Charlie Berns’ first love has always been language.
He might not have always said so. I mean, he was married, for crying out loud, and his now-deceased wife Carrie would’ve been offended (even if she kinda knew). He fiercely loves his grown kids (Rex and Francine) and his granddaughter, Lindsay.
But his words—written, spoken, recited on the Broadway stage or mumbled in comic monologues—came first. They made him happy, those little jokes he wrote, and they made other people happy, too. He loved making people laugh, and they loved him for it: They bought tickets to his plays and showered him with awards. And whenever Charlie had to make a choice between two loves—spending time with his wife or making sure a joke landed just so—the punchline always won.
But now Charlie worries that his words may leave him. Just like his memories are beginning to.
Charlie’s in the early stages of some form of dementia. His doctor isn’t sure what label to slap on the condition just yet, but it doesn’t really matter. Charlie knows that, more than likely, everything he is and everything he knows will slip away, inch by inch.
He hasn’t told anyone—not even his kids. Not time yet, he tells himself. While he sometimes forgets names and can lose track of where he is, Charlie’s still Charlie. He still writes for This Just In, a sketch comedy show in the mold of Saturday Night Live. He still walks to work, still keeps track of his appointments. Why, he has a lunch date of sorts right now, in fact, with a stranger who “won” him during a charity auction: a fan, no doubt, and Charlie still remembers how to treat a fan.
But when Emma sits down, she’s clearly no fan. Her ex-boyfriend was actually the lucky winner, nabbing a lunch with Charlie for the bargain price of $22. But when Emma caught the guy cheating on her, she nabbed the winning ticket out of spite. She wouldn’t know Charlie Berns from Charlie Brown.
But hey, a free lunch is a free lunch, am I right? So she promptly orders the deluxe seafood salad (extra seafood, please) with an added lobster tail right on top.
Alas, Emma is allergic to seafood.
It’s a surprise to everyone. But after a trip to the emergency room, an epinephrine shot and $2,000—two grand flying straight out of Charlie’s wallet, by the way—and she’s just fine.
As the weeks go by and Emma slowly pays Charlie back (a paper bag full of bills at a time), they become friends. Charlie makes Emma laugh. Emma makes Charlie smile. Soon, the two spend whatever free time they have together.
Words might be Charlie’s first love. But as those words slip away, Emma might sidle in somewhere and provide a little love and support of her own.
Charlie and Emma’s difficult-to-define relationship serves as the centerpiece of Here Today. As the two grow closer, even they struggle to define who and what they are to each other. Friends? Something more? It’s difficult to say.
But if the relational label is fuzzy, the affection and compassion they have for each other is not. The two get along incredibly well despite their obvious differences—an age gap of decades perhaps chief among them. And even when their friendship requires sacrifices—especially on Emma’s part—both are willing to make them.
But the movie’s not just about Charlie’s new relationship; it’s about old ones, too—especially with his grown children.
Charlie and his daughter, Francine, don’t get along that well these days. Their relationship has taken some hits over the decades. She (and her brother, Rex) probably have reason to be mad. But as the story, and as Charlie’s condition, both progress, Here Today moves into a space that allows healing and reconciliation.
Charlie and his family are Jewish, and granddaughter Lindsay’s bat mitzvah is another major part of the plot. Lindsay chants from the Torah as an approving rabbi looks on. During the ceremony itself (inside a synagogue festooned with Jewish symbols), Lindsay cracks a philosophical joke (about life being a cookie), courtesy her “Papa Charlie.” At the reception later, people dance traditional Jewish dances and wear yarmulkes. Emma enjoys herself so much at the reception that she declares she’ll be converting soon.
Charlie unleashes a profane tirade toward God after his doctor tells him that the dementia is progressing quickly. “This God is a real jokester, isn’t He?” he shouts. “’Hey, live your whole life and you won’t remember any of it!’”
During a television comedy sketch, a character (the Incredibly Single Guy) threatens listeners with the “wrath of my god … the great Zoomgali.” Another segment on the show uses Jesus’ name simultaneously as a reference to the person and as a profanity. We see a wax statue of Pope Francis, which Charlie and Emma joke about. We see the words “atheist mantis” written on a white board. Someone briefly appears in a devil costume.
When someone asks Charlie and Emma whether they’ve had sex, both say simultaneously, “We’ve spooned.” As far as the movie’s concerned, that’s as close to sex as the two of them get. Indeed, the most physical intimacy we see between them extends to just a bit of handholding and some light kisses on the cheek and forehead. But we hear quite a bit of sexual dialogue anyway.
Emma repeatedly (and graphically) tells Charlie that the two of them are sexually incompatible. “Your frail little body would not be able to handle all these groceries!” she tells him at one point. But when they run into Emma’s ex, Emma lies and tells him that she and Charlie are sleeping together (again, using more frank terminology). Both Rex and Francine are concerned that she and Charlie are seriously dating—in part because both have unpleasant memories of how Charlie dated much younger women after their mother died.
Charlie reminisces about his wife, Carrie, often. “The sexiest thing about her—she made me laugh,” he says. But that was hardly where their relationship stopped. In flashback, Charlie and his then-girlfriend Carrie lie in bed together. In another scene, Charlie holds a stick of butter—ostensibly to get tar off the souls of Carrie’s feet. “De-tar me,” Carrie tells him, adding suggestively, “But seems a shame to waste the butter on my foot.” Later, when Carrie’s about to give birth to their first child, a doctor removes her panties (we see the underwear but nothing critical). Carrie quips that he’s being rather forward for a first date.
Comedy sketches include references to sex and sexual acts, including some very graphic and anatomical allusions to them. We see a bit of Emma’s bare bum and a “SLIPPERY WHEN WET” tattoo on it—the name of Emma’s band. During a reception, she dances a bit suggestively (albeit jokingly) with a few attendees. Charlie wonders at first whether Emma is a pole dancer. (She’s not.) The two make some crass jokes involving some wax figurines. One of Charlie’s old plays features two married people having an affair, and we see the illicit couple kiss in a bathroom during a Halloween party. There’s a mild double entendre involving a Herman Melville book.
A confused Charlie freezes while walking in the middle of an intersection: A biker crashes to avoid him, and a taxi driver nearly hits the old man.
[Spoiler warning] We learn that Charlie’s wife died in a head-on traffic accident.
The film pushes the limits of PG-13 territory, language-wise, using two f-words and nearly a dozen s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “crap,” “d–n,” “h—” and “p-ssed.” God’s name is misused 15 times—three of those with the word “d–n”—and Jesus’ name is abused twice.
In a flashback, Carrie smokes. We learn that a kid “loaded on pills” was involved in a serious traffic accident. Emma receives an epinephrine shot and is prescribed more medication. Charlie’s on plenty of meds himself. We see people drink wine with dinner.
A comedy sketch is predicated completely on toilet humor (and on the fact that the flushing toilet was invented by someone named Thomas Crapper). Another sketch culminates in a television audience chanting “dumb turd” (which is later referenced in a Twitter missive).
Charlie discusses his cranky bowels with his doctor. When Charlie has to inject Emma’s rear with an epi pen, he admits he didn’t close his eyes (and thus saw a tattoo on her rump). He says that you don’t want to be doing stuff in that region with your eyes closed, because the epi pen “could’ve ended up someplace that we both would not have been happy about.”
During a meeting for the television sketch show This Just In, the producer considers placing a sketch involving sexual consent—along with some really graphic anatomical descriptions—at the top of the show. Charlie disagrees: The sketch is just too crude for that kind of plum placement.
When someone tells Charlie that those crude lines got a huge laugh, Charlie says that crudity always gets a laugh. “But is it the right kind of laugh?” he adds.
That scene tells us something: It tells us what kind of movie its makers wanted Here Today to be, but it also reminds us where the film falls short.
Here Today tackles the issue of dementia—a condition that’s having a bit of a pop-culture moment right now. And in its depiction of an aging comic legend striking up a mostly platonic relationship with an unexpected new best friend, the movie means well. It wants to be the right kind of story.
The fact that it’s not is at least partly aesthetic. Directed by and starring the legendary Billy Crystal, Here Today seems guilty of trying too hard. The jokes and the emotions both feel strained. And while the film took pains to acknowledge and explain the weirdness in Charlie’s and Emma’s relationship—hoping to redeem it—I kept thinking about whether there’d be a legal battle over Charlie’s will after he passes.
But the movie also pushed into some other areas of concern. While Charlie believes that jokes can be too cheap, that doesn’t stop him or others from mining the bathroom and bedroom for gags of their own. It’s almost like he’s working with an unspoken ratio: 80% smart, 20% smutty, perhaps. But for many viewers, especially moms and dads thinking about their kids watching, that ratio will still feel out of whack.
Taking a serious subject and making us laugh about it just might be one of the most difficult tricks in moviemaking—the equivalent of a tightrope walk in a strong breeze. I like that Here Today tried to walk that rope. But still, can’t ignore that the film lost its footing along the way.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.