Sometimes even the schmalziest and most contrived stories turn out to be engrossing on film, saved by the charisma and chemistry of the stars involved. The dialog might elicit an eye-roll or two, and situational set-ups might be formulaic, but the actors are so committed and hence real, that we not only buy it all, we become beguiled by the back and forth between them to the very end. Here Today pulls this banter-filled balance off nicely.

Billy Crystal and Tiffany Haddish are obviously an odd pair and their first meeting at the start of the film feels terribly forced (sassy restaurant orders, snarky waiter, allergic reactions to seafood  and all). But you can tell that they enjoy each other on screen (and probably off) and soon, you’re sucked in. Will this become a budding May-December romance, a father-daughter thing or something else?

Turns out it’s something else. Crystal, who wrote, directed and produced the relationship-driven comedy, is exploring mental illness/aging here, specifically what it’s like for a 70-something writer to suffer through the onslaught of dementia. Some scenes will be triggering for people with older parents battling such mental anguish, but that’s because they ring so true.

Crystal plays seasoned comedy writer Charlie Burnz, a legend whose current gig is as an advisor for a Saturday Night Live-style show on “the Funny Channel.” He meets Emma Payge (Haddish) after she takes the prize won by her ex-boyfriend at an auction– a free lunch with the writer.

Charlie keeps his diagnosis secret, even from his son (Penn Badgley) and daughter (Laura Benanti), the latter of whom still blames her dad for working too much and not being there when her mother died in a car accident decades ago. The family drama plays out predictably, and Emma’s presence brightens the tension, especially when she attends Charlie’s grandaughter’s bat mitzvah, which leads to everyone assuming the pair are an item.

Even the viewer isn’t sure if this will evolve into a love story, but soon it’s clear; our protagonist is still obsessed with his departed wife (Louisa Krause) to the extent that part of his dementia symptoms include reliving special moments in their relationship and ultimately the horror of her death. Charlie and Emma’s unique (platonic) relationship was destined to help Charlie share his struggles, accept his fate and prepare for it by writing a family memoir.

Co-written by former SNL contributor Alan Zweibel (who penned a short story called  “The Prize,” which served as the starting point here), there’s also some interesting behind the scenes and on-set stuff in the writers room of the sketch show, where the younger comic scribes question Charlie’s chops (and the viewer is likely to question theirs).  Some cringey show moments ensue –some intentional, some not– but everyone is likeable and believable either way.

Here Today‘s subject matter is too dark for a typical rom-com, but Crystal hasn’t been this lovable since When Harry Met Sally. Haddish has almost as many shining moments as Meg Ryan did in the Rob Reiner classic, a film that suggested men and women really couldn’t be just friends. Decades later, this take on the buddy flick proves otherwise and suggests that  unconventional relationships, especially later in life, can be just powerful as traditional courtships.

Here Today is in theaters now.

LA Weekly