John Lithgow and Blythe Danner command the screen in everything they do, but “The Tomorrow Man” really pushes those limits. Writer-director Noble Jones’ debut is a cute, confused blend of senior love and apocalyptic dread. There’s an intriguing mystery at the center of this wistful story, as frantic divorcee Ed Hemsler attempts to share his wild conspiracy theories with Ronnie (Danner), the fellow loner he meets at the local grocery store. Set in ambiguous small-town America, “The Tomorrow Man” suggests “Take Shelter” by way of “It’s Complicated,” an unseemly combination that never quite gels. But the actors work overtime to mine substance from the material, and Jones gives them plenty of room to rescue this curious movie from complete oblivion.
But oblivion is Ed’s greatest fear: Spending long hours holed up in his quiet home, he wastes his days posting his paranoid observations in an online forum under the moniker “Captain Reality,” in between regular trips to a shopping mall where he keeps his bomb shelter stocked up. During one of those visits, he comes across Ronnie in the parking lot, and makes a clumsy attempt to ask her out. Ronnie’s awkward tendencies and baffled reactions make her a female counterpart to her suitor, so it’s not long before the two have settled into a charming romance.
Danner previously excelled at conveying the unique tenor of late-blooming love with “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” but she’s especially well-suited for inhabiting Ronnie’s blend of melancholy and warmth with sad eyes and a wavering voice; she finds a wonderful counterpart in Lithgow, who channels his effusive tendencies into the bundle of neuroses that becomes the movie’s main fixation — and ultimately, its main source of conflict. It’s a curious pleasure to watch the characters develop their budding relationship, singing Captain Tennille’s “Muskrat Love” in a lovely duet and learning the meaning of the word “BFF.”
A more grounded drama focused solely on this couple’s attraction might have found its footing, but “The Tomorrow Man” keeps chasing a quirky scenario that never settles in. Something’s not quite right with Ed, who veers from sweet-natured lover to obsessive survivalist when he shows off his shelter to Ronnie. The TV anchor speaks to him at night — for reasons later revealed in an underdeveloped twist — and his anticipation of apocalyptic scenarios have no tangible source. His grown son has gotten tired of his dad’s rambling advice and isolated lifestyle. Jones’ script struggles to reconcile the darkness of Ed’s life with the catharsis that Ronnie provides him, often stumbling on blunt confrontations. It only takes one health scare for Ronnie to finally put him in his place, and — ugh — give the movie its title: “You’re always worried about tomorrow!”
Jones, who served as cinematographer, develops an atmosphere of warmly lit late-night exchanges just a few degrees shy of creepy, and the movie’s simplistic events benefit from the underlying mystery of Ed’s obsession with the end of the world. The drama has the concision of a Stephen King short story, but in this case, the whimsy overstays its welcome.
Moreover, the sweet, understated nature of the couple’s relationship runs counter to the more frightening aspects of Ed’s beliefs. Unlike “Take Shelter,” Jones’ script falls short of entertaining the validity of Ed’s ramblings, so he mostly comes across as crazy. But the abrupt, dazzling finale circles back on that assumption, and “The Tomorrow Man” concludes with the implication that companionship is the ultimate catharsis to certain death. It’s not the deepest message, but at least “The Tomorrow Man” finally knows its limits.
“The Tomorrow Man” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section. Bleecker Street will release it later this year.