The Tomorrow Man is a sweet little picture that unfortunately doesn’t seem to have an intended audience.
There’s something particularly depressing about sitting through a film that seemed like it might be an intriguing, lo-fi indie sci-fi drama but turns out to be little more than an arty romcom for boomers. But that self-imposed disappointment aside, The Tomorrow Man is a sweet little picture that unfortunately doesn’t seem to have an intended audience.
The Tomorrow Man of the film’s title refers to John Lithgow’s Ed, a retiree obsessed with an impending apocalypse that only exists in his own mind. Ed spends every day of his life watching network news, talking about the world on paranoid message boards and conscientiously shopping for bunker supplies. In between those repetitive tasks, he finds time to admonish his grown adult son for not doing the same. But all that changes when he meets Ronnie (Blythe Danner), an intriguing woman at his local grocery store with a similarly fine eye for paper products. Assuming she’s a fellow “prepper,” Ed begins an unconventional courtship with Ronnie, one that begins cringey and uncomfortable but blossoms into something an audience can “aww” at.
Writer/director/cinematographer Noble Jones lenses this understated love story with delicate care, luxuriating in loping camera movements even in such every day locations as an antiques store or indistinguishable small-town roads. The commercial veteran and protege of David Fincher has an attention to detail and eye for aesthetic beyond this project’s means that, at times, elevates the material. There’s an admirable sincerity to the way he treats this story of elders, never stooping to mock these boomer stereotypes and giving them space to explore their foibles and fears.
Luckily, he’s got a great cast, with Lithgow so well-cast as Ed, a character that could easily be a condescending caricature. In Lithgow’s hands, Ed can be laughed at, but never in a way that demeans his humanity. It’s a portrait that works a little too well, because of how immaculately he embodies a mindset that is such a frustrating presence in modern society. From a dramatic standpoint, it’s laudable that he’s given such room to form a bond with the audience. It allows viewers to look deeper at a character they may otherwise outright dismiss for his personal views and generally unpleasant nature.
But the screen time necessary to forge that degree of empathy with Ed comes at the expense of getting closer to Ronnie, an immediately more sympathetic figure bolstered by a truly stirring performance from Danner. If both romantic leads were given equal footing in the narrative, there would be a charming balance in the picture, as Danner’s hoarder/lonely old lady persona is just as maligned as Ed’s doomsday prepper one, if even moreso considering how little malice she means those around her. Instead, she feels like she exists solely to make the audience feel less repulsed by Ed’s general demeanor.
Using one to get the other over diminishing the romance between the two, draining some of the good will the film’s soft tone and touching performances earn it. The result is a bittersweet curio that is too slow moving and distant for younger audiences and perhaps too incisive in its confronting older perspectives to be romcom bait for elder viewers. It functions best as a showcase for a pair of actors who rarely get to be at the forefront anymore, and for a filmmaker whose best work is likely still ahead of him.