A doomsday prepper and a hoarder walk into a grocery store and therein lies the meet-cute of Noble Jones’ debut feature, “The Tomorrow Man,” an odd little romantic dramedy starring John Lithgow and Blythe Danner.
The film starts with a promising premise, and Jones carefully lays out the mannered details of his main character. Lithgow plays Ed, who meticulousy buys canned goods, batteries and gas every day and stashes it in a secret bunker. He thinks the local news anchor is speaking directly to him and posts daily on conspiracy theory message boards. But when he meets — or rather, stalks — Ronnie (Danner) in his local grocery store, his obsessive tendencies have a new object of attention and affection, who he is convinced is of like mind. She also grocery shops a lot and has a penchant for war documentaries.
“The Tomorrow Man” is a story about two very lonely people connecting — if they can only get over their own baggage, which is represented quite literally in the useless stuff they’ve accumulated in their homes. Jones, who also shot the film, is making the switch to writing and directing after a career as a cinematographer and music video director. His voice and point of view are unique, but after that promising setup, the film meanders, trying and failing to find some sense of purpose with these two oddball characters and their rich backstories. But Ronnie and Ed just listlessly bounce off each other, trying to make their relationship work despite their issues.
Despite the strange but winning chemistry between Danner and Lithgow, the script ultimately fails the fascinating characters. There are conversations, especially among Ed’s family — his son (Derek Cecil), daughter-in-law (Katie Aselton) and granddaughter (Sophie Thatcher) — where it seems like everyone is speaking in code, but to what end? There are whole swaths of inscrutable dialogue where one wonders if the characters are even speaking to each other or if they’re aliens trying to mimic humanistic indie movie speak (think Lithgow’s “Third Rock From The Sun” character in a Sundance movie). “The Tomorrow Man” can’t decide if it’s an apocalypse movie or a romance. That it lands somewhere in the middle is entirely fair but never satisfies either movie that it’s trying to be.
In other films, Danner and Lithgow would each be the quirky half of a couple playing off a straight man, so casting the two together leads to wonderful moments between the veteran actors, stepping outside their comfort zone into something a little more offbeat. One thing’s for certain: Blythe Danner is pure magic. The actress can make any material sing with her singular choices and sheer charisma.
There’s a vaguely sci-fi bent to “The Tomorrow Man,” but it’s less about the apocalypse itself and more about the fear of death, which is coming for us all, in sickness or in mushroom cloud. It takes a roundabout route to get to this overall message, and while Jones’ film gets a bit lost along the way, the film is nevertheless a distinctive debut of feature writing and directing.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘The Tomorrow Man’
Rated: PG-13, for brief strong language and some suggestive material
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: Starts Wednesday, Landmark, West Los Angeles