John Lithgow has been flourishing of late. He plays the baddie in the recent remake of “Pet Sematary.” He’s currently on Broadway, across from Laurie Metcalf, in “Hillary and Clinton.” The flourishing isn’t about to end. Lithgow’s third-billed in the Mindy Kaling-scripted comedy, “Late Night,” with Emma Thompson and Kaling. It opens here June 14. At the end of the year, he plays Roger Ailes in “Fair and Balanced.” There’s Stephen King baddie, and then there’s Fox News baddie. Oh, and he has a book of satirical poetry coming out in August, “Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse.”
Has Blythe Danner ever not been flourish-worthy? At that place where “wondrous” and “underappreciated” meet on any set of actress x-y coordinates, you will find her name (slightly above those of Metcalf and Judy Davis). It’s an indictment of Hollywood, not that any more are needed, that her best-known role is as Ben Stiller’s mother-in-law in those three Focker movies. And it’s an indictment of the vagaries of human evolution that she’s most famous for being Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother.
Lithgow and Danner star in the comedy-drama “The Tomorrow Man.” Is it a further bit of flourishing for him and (finally, at long last, please, God, please) the movie she deserves?
To take three paragraphs until asking the question is to answer it.
Ed, Lithgow’s title character, is a small-town retiree with serious survivalist tendencies. You won’t find his Ford pickup in the garage. There’s no room, what with all the canned goods. When he asks Ronnie, Danner’s character, “What kind of tuna you prefer?” it’s no idle question.
He’s the tomorrow man because of his highly skeptical view of the future. “I’m not scared,” Ed explains. “I’m ready.” He likes going online to pontificate, using the nom de ’net Captain Reality. Lithgow is a fine actor, but that pursy mouth and the scoldy voice issuing from it might suit Ed a little too well.
Ronnie, who has some issues of her own with the gathering of worldly goods, works in a gift shop. The manager is a hotsy-totsy woman in her 20s, which leads to attempts at when-generations-collide humor. The attempts generally fail, though writer-director Noble Jones, making his feature debut, mostly displays a nicely dry wit. Even without Lithgow’s expert delivery, Ed’s announcing to Ronnie “You have no idea how screwed up the world would be without ball bearings” would still be pretty funny.
The two of them meet in a supermarket checkout line. It’s easy to understand what Ed sees in Ronnie. He may be weird, but he’s no fool. Not only is she played by Blythe Danner; it’s Blythe Danner wearing glasses with nifty red frames. Even the way she pushes a shopping cart is elegant. What she sees in him is a bit of a puzzle. That he always pays by check, and she always pays by cash — no credit cards! — is not exactly kismet. Their being together feels more like a device — there’d be no movie without their relationship — than it does a romance. There’s a lack of chemistry that makes for a listlessness of narrative.
Ed’s divorced (no surprise there), with a grown son. Once he starts dating Ronnie, this sets up that most fraught of family questions: “Can I bring someone?” It’s hard to say which is the biggest turkey at the ensuing holiday meal. A more interesting question is: Why does the woman on the TV news seem to be talking directly to Ed? The answer is completely unexpected yet makes perfect sense. Sadly, that’s the opposite of Ronnie being with Ed, which is completely expected yet makes no sense.
THE TOMORROW MAN
Written and directed by Noble Jones. Starring John Lithgow and Blythe Danner. At Kendall Square. 94 minutes. PG-13 (brief strong language and some suggestive material).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.