The Tomorrow Man is a good looking, well acted film that would a lot better and more interesting if there was as much consideration given to the story as there was to the casting and cinematography. The debut feature from director-writer-cinematographer and music video veteran Noble Jones, The Tomorrow Man never decides if it wants to be a serious drama about mental illness and aging or a romantic comedy for senior citizens. One gets the idea that Jones wants The Tomorrow Man to play in a fashion akin to David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, but it reads instead like a knock-off of Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter that was rewritten by Garry Marshall. It’s one of the most maddeningly inconsistent movies of the year, but far from being the most incompetent.
Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow) is a small town retiree “on the wrong side of sixty.” For years, Ed has been preparing dutifully for any possible doomsday scenario, much to the chagrin of his adult son, Brian (Derek Cecil). He spends most of his days alone until he catches a glimpse of Ronnie Meisner (Blythe Danner) in the checkout line at the local supermarket. He starts to essentially stalk her in the parking lot, thinking that her selection of groceries is indicative of a fellow survivalist. She’s not, but Ronnie is a depressed widow who recently lost her daughter to a rare disease. They hit it off almost immediately (once Ed finally gets the nerve to approach her) and start an unlikely, but mutually beneficial romantic relationship.
The Tomorrow Man opens ominously with a scene that’s far too serious within the context of the film to follow, and in this moment one can immediately start to see where Jones went wrong in terms of execution. Jones wants to take Ed’s paranoia seriously, but throughout the film (and even in the opening scene), The Tomorrow Man keeps contradicting itself, making the main character just another run of the mill kook. It’s shown that Ed is medicated, hears things that aren’t there, and that he hasn’t stopped taking his pills, but they clearly aren’t helping whatever mysterious mental illness afflicts him. The Tomorrow Man is always hedging its bets when it comes to handling Ed’s delicate and possibly deteriorating mental state. It’s a bit of a cowardly move. Jones never comes out and says that Ed is schizophrenic, bipolar, or anything else, so he instead settles for a jumbled up mess of mental illness and paranoiac cliches. If the film never specifies what’s wrong with Ed, then it doesn’t have to look foolish or insulting if it gets something wrong. By that same token, it also allows Jones an all too easy out if he writes the film into a corner, which he does many times. Ed’s mental illness isn’t a serious character trait. It’s a narrative reset button, and an excuse to make the material seem deeper than it actually is.
As soon as Ronnie and Ed meet, The Tomorrow Man launches headlong into its meet-cute and never looks back, never earning an remotely believable feel-good moments in the process, but opening up a lot more tonal shifts and gaps that were already bad enough from the start. It’s nice to see Danner breaking away from her recent string of playing older women with memory problems, and Lithgow is so good at what he does that he almost sells the whole film by being likable and breathing a lot of sympathy into the character, but there’s not much they can do when Jones keeps changing the kind of movie that they’re in every several minutes.
A scene where Ronnie is given dating tips from her goth-ish co-worker (Eve Harlow) feels like it has been trucked in from any number of romantic comedies before it, but it comes not long after a scene that implies Ed’s break from reality could be getting worse. The film forgets about Ed’s troubles for a while to focus on Ronnie’s trepidation about reentering the dating pool. Later in the film, during a contentious trip to Brian’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, Ed is given the spotlight, but nothing about his backstory is forwarded all that much despite being given a lengthy amount of screen time. During this scene, Jones forgets about Ronnie and reduces her to the role of a casual observer. And although these frustratingly thin moments of narrative whiplash don’t help to make The Tomorrow Man a more coherent whole, they’re still light years better than the embarrassingly corny “hanging out and having fun” montage that shows the early days of Ed and Ronnie’s relationship. The film has done nothing to earn such a cheesy moment and its inclusion here is baffling. The scenes that work here would work better if the movie around them provided some degree of tonal support.
From scene to scene, it’s impossible to tell if The Tomorrow Man is trying to be funny or serious, and instead emerges as a real head scratcher. The drama, comedy, and romance keep fighting for prominence, but none of them ever emerge as an overriding tone thanks to the script’s inability to focus, making it one of those films where it’s impossible to care about these people beyond hoping no harm comes to them, which is the weakest, easiest, and cheapest type of story to tell in term of fostering an emotional investment.
Jones is the only person to really blame for such an issue, considering that he’s in charge of three of the most high profile jobs behind the camera. He fares best as a cinematographer, delivering plenty of gorgeous medium and wide shots that are perfectly lit and executed. He has lots of stunning, lovingly composed close-ups of mundane objects, computer screens performing internet searches, or Ed making a sandwich. Jones seems so enamoured with those details and making sure his actors look as good as possible in an overall listless enterprise that there probably wasn’t room to do anything else. Maybe if Jones wasn’t so focused on those fine details, he would’ve noticed that his script for The Tomorrow Man doesn’t hold up to a similar level of scrutiny.
The Tomorrow Man opens in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal on Friday, June 7, 2019. It expands to additional Canadian cities throughout the month.
Check out the trailer for The Tomorrow Man:
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