John Lithgow and Blythe Danner make an offbeat and winning combination, with total belief that they’re in a really good movie. Unfortunately, they’re not.
Writer/director Noble Jones’ “The Tomorrow Man,” is a poorly conceived and awkwardly structured film about two septuagenarians who are out of step with their time and place. Lithgow and Danner certainly are out of time and place with the movie, but in this context, that’s good. They elevate the material into something vaguely watchable.
Lithgow is Ed Hemsler, a crotchety old man who is preparing for the apocalypse. Living in a small town (place unidentified; seems like the Midwest, shot in Rochester, N.Y.) and constantly watching something akin to Fox News, he uses his meager retirement money to buy supplies for his secret shelter that will shield him when society breaks down and chaos ensues.
He has regular personal contact with exactly one person, his son Brian (Derek Cecil), who lives miles away. They have a series of contentious phone calls; Ed doesn’t think his son is adequately prepared to defend himself or his wife (Katie Aselton) and daughter (Sophie Thatcher) when the end-time comes.
Oh, but Ed does have a little community around him: a series of like-minded friends in his internet chat room, where he is known as Captain Reality, and the Fox News-like host (Wendy Makkena) who, in one of the film’s dumbest conceits, interrupts reading the news to address Ed directly.
At the grocery store — Ed is of that era where he still pays by check — he observes Ronnie (Danner), whom he identifies as a “fellow traveler” based on her choice of groceries — canned goods, cleaning supplies, etc. Ronnie is an introvert, to say the least; every time someone says a word to her, she seems shellshocked. An exception: her young co-worker Tina (Eve Harlow). They are the only two employees in a novelty gift shop that never seems to have more than one customer at a time.
In his clunky way, Ed pursues Ronnie, and an awkward romance begins. And it’s kind of fun — they bring each other part way out of their respective shells, through dates that involve eating at diners and falling asleep on the couch watching war documentaries.
Lithgow is enjoying something of a career renaissance, with a strong supporting role in the recent “Pet Sematary” remake and in the upcoming “Late Night,” as well as his turn as Winston Churchill in the Netflix series “The Crown.” Danner has her best role since “I’ll See You in My Dreams” in 2015.
Unfortunately, “The Tomorrow Man” takes several wrong turns. There’s a ridiculous sequence where Ed and Ronnie drive to his son’s house for Thanksgiving, which devolves into an argument so badly written and over-the-top it’s laughable. And if you think that’s dumb, wait until you find out the twist involving the cable news host. Plus, Ronnie’s big secret. And the clichéd medical emergency that spins the plot toward maudlin.
It’s all capped off by a silly, magical-reality ending that belongs in another movie.
Fortunately, there’s Lithgow and Danner, two pros who are having the time of their lives, and some of it rubs off on us.