'The Tomorrow Man': Film Review | Sundance 2019

A clever ending in search of a movie.

John Lithgow and Blythe Danner star as eccentric senior citizens who start a romance in Noble Jones' debut feature.

There’s no denying that The Tomorrow Man has a knockout ending. But is it worth sitting through the mundane, relatively uneventful film that precedes it? Few will think so. Noble Jones’ first feature — he wrote, directed and shot it — would have worked superbly as a half-hour Twilight Zone episode, but this December-December love story between two mild eccentrics in a small town is remarkably unremarkable, even if it does generate modest interest thanks to the appealing performances by John Lithgow and Blythe Danner in their first big-screen appearance together. Older audiences who will most enjoy the pic’s late-blooming romance will far sooner watch this at home than in theaters.

Certainly the setup has potential and appeal. Ed Hemsler (Lithgow) is a big old guy who putts around town in his old pickup, watches a TV news program in which the broadcaster always ends her commentary with a direct remark to him and keeps everything in his home, including a large stash of emergency supplies, neatly organized. “I’m ready,” he announces. “I just want to be ready.” And he likes to talk. A lot.

A woman his own age, Ronnie Meisner (Danner), catches his eye in the supermarket and he soon contrives an amusingly fresh meet cute that kick-starts a relationship that feels credible; it’s easy to root for these two. She has no kids or husband and, given that they’re in their mid-70s, sees no reason to beat around the bush romantically.

Ed tends to go on and on, and Ronnie’s hording homemaking style could scarcely be more at odds from his. But as potentially embraceable as this couple may be, their relationship veers increasingly toward the cutesy rather than the emotionally meaningful; they exchange very little information about their pasts, and don’t much discuss their feelings, their lifetime highs and lows or much else of personal significance. It’s a likable enough relationship with little basis for it other than old-age companionability. Ronnie does have an eccentric preference in TV viewing — vintage World War II documentaries.

When Jones casts the net even just a bit wider than around the two leads, things really go awry, specifically at a Thanksgiving dinner at the nearby home of Ed’s son Brian (Derek Cecil). Father and son have always had their problems, and it’s easy to see why — the latter is a self-serious jerk who takes any excuse to yell, especially at his daughter at the dinner table. Yes, now it’s clear why Ed doesn’t much like to see his son, but this whole central scene is poorly written, with no insight or nuance or interest in suggesting why Brian behaves so poorly or is such a drag. And why are all the trees and bushes in full green bloom at Thanksgiving and even later?

Despite the natural impulse to root for the central romance, the film becomes increasingly conventional as it proceeds, with every meaning and intent served up right over the middle of the plate. Given their mature years, the two main characters are never going to change much at this point, so the interest would have been how they accommodate each other and make allowances to foster the golden-years romance. Lithgow and Danner would certainly have been up for the challenge of illustrating the finer points of such a relationship, but it’s presented in a hasty way that leaves much wanting. Except the ending, for which the seeds were indeed planted but with a result not seen coming. It’s quite clever, even memorable, but is more or less wasted on a movie that needed to be far less precious and much more insightful about its characters.

Production companies: Symbolic Exchange, Anonymous Content
Distributor: Bleecker Street Media
Cast: John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Derek Cecil, Katie Aselton, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow
Director-screenwriter: Noble Jones
Producers: Luke Rivett, Nicolaas Bertelsen, James Schamus, Tony Lipp
Executive producers: Jenifer Wenjie Dong, Figo Li, Avy Eschenasy, Joe Pirrp
Director of photography: Noble Jones
Production designer: Patrick M. Sullivan Jr.
Costume designer: Kerry Hennessy
Editor: Zimo Huang
Additional editor: Glen Scantlebury
Music: Paul Leonard-Morgan
Casting: Hannah Cooper
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

91 minutes