It’s no exaggeration to insist that John Lithgow is one of the finest actors of our time. He’s proven it endlessly with a fairly consistent, decade-spanning career of TV, film, and theater roles, culminating with his recent Emmy win for The Crown. So it’s hard not to wonder how he may fare in a leading role for a change.
Bleecker Street’s The Tomorrow Man may as as well be titled The Journeyman. The indie dramedy centers around Ed, an aging survivalist “on the wrong side of 60” played of course by John Lithgow. He’s obsessed with hoarding supplies in anticipation for a doomsday scenario he’s gobbled up from cable news and social media. In other words, he’s just about every millennial’s father in 2019, and his son in this film (Derek Cecil) is just about the only person still somewhat close to him, despite his constant conspiracy theories and armchair lecturing over the phone.
That all changes, however, when the shy and cautious Ronnie (Blythe Danner) stumbles into his life. Sensing a possible connection over their daily supermarket trips, Ed impulsively woos her, and so begins a romantic comedy hiding inside a more serious drama about fatherhood and accepting the uncomfortable wishes of our closest loved ones.
Over time, Ronnie introduces a break in Ed’s self-involved routine, and their courtship is just the right amount of adorable, without overdoing the obvious joke of an older couple experiencing the rom-com clichés usually reserved for 20 and 30-somethings living glamorously in New York. Ed and Ronnie are just working-class folks getting by in a small town, spending their days like most of us do in and out of relationships.
Yet it’s still joyous to see these two fall in love like teenagers. The “big joke” works here because Danner and Lithgow are masters of their craft, able to invent chemistry whenever the script calls for a moment that would be awkward or unsettling, otherwise. Ronnie in particular is almost impossible to dislike because Danner gives her an original edge that leads to some of the film’s most unpredictable—and therefore, humorous—moments.
Noble Jones directed, wrote, and even shot the film himself, despite this being his debut feature. So it shows that he wisely leaned on his lead performances to offer an extra ingredient to an otherwise droll story filled with mostly unlikable characters yelling and screaming at each other right before getting over their hangups. Without spoiling anything, Jones manages to end the film on a note that perfectly encapsulates what he must have set out to accomplish with these characters in the first place, and it overshadows most of the film’s less impressive tidying up in the final third.
There are a few lofty ideas at play in The Tomorrow Man, but they fall short of the film’s true selling point: the sweetness between a couple of friends who build a romance from the ground up. The more dramatic moments aren’t necessarily flat, but perhaps a bit disjointed whenever oblivion and death’s door are invoked to quickly remind the audience that yes, there is a ticking clock hanging over everyone’s shoulder. And it can certainly feel like the end of the world is coming when the end of your world is coming sooner rather than later. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find someone to enter that next journey with you.