"I like movies. Old ones. Back when they knew what they were doing," says Ed Hemsler (John Lithgow), star of The Tomorrow Man, and you know what? I totally agree with that. Also, if you want a really clear-cut example of the kind of movie that gets made now, when they don't know what they're doing, you could hardly do worse than check out The Tomorrow Man.

The film is pure, uncut, mid-'00s quirky indie boilerplate, horrifyingly mixed with late-'10s "Fake News" mania. Basically, it is a high-concept romcom that just reeks of soulless calculation. See, he's an end-times prepper prone to going on rants about how the country is about to descend into lawless anarchism. She's a hoarder, but he thinks her habits - using cash, buying up lots of shelf-stable goods at the grocery story - mean that she shares his particular passion. How will these two kids ever overcome this wacky misunderstanding, get out of their own way, and fall in love? Oh, and they're not kids: they're both in their 70s. Which is somehow the most soulless part of all. For the aging boomers, it's a geriatric romcom that casts those charming cutie-pies Lithgow and Blythe Danner as the awkward lovers. For the aging boomers' kids, it has foisted upon Lithgow and Danner the kind of Internet-Era myopic neuroses that makes them frustratingly recognisable as damaged in a way that fits in exactly with how the extremely online suppose all old people to get after too much exposure to Fox News. It has something for everybody!

"Except for those of us who like our movies to be well-made", I would almost quip, except that The Tomorrow Man has me dead to rights. I mean, Lithgow and Danner. That is an irritatingly hard duo to complain about. Take out all the other considerations - the unexplored thematic resonances of the plot, the aesthetics, the arrhythmic pacing - and just present, on the face of it, a chance to watch Lithgow and Danner flirt and banter and be a couple of cute old daffy lovebirds, their quirks just exactly matching up for maximum charming tentativeness. How is one supposed to turn that down? Even knowing that it doesn't end up working and the film is corny crap? The most irritating thing about The Tomorrow Man is how earnestly likeable the central pair turns out to be, in roles that are perfectly-shaped around their skills as actors. Ed's boyish glee at showing Ronnie Meisner (that'd be Danner) how to unlock his super-secret prepper closet; Ronnie's suddenly forthright bravery in asking to go to Ed's house, obviously surprising herself far more than she surprises Ed; these are wonderful tiny moments among countless wonderful tiny moments in which the actors find something warm and sparkling between themselves. What, really, can you ask for out of a romcom, other than a pair of lovers who just seem so right for each other that the thought of their stupid mental blocks keeping them separated becomes a real frustration to us as viewers, just as much or more than it does for them as characters? And The Tomorrow Man has that, if it has nothing else.

Which it doesn't. Have anything else. If the bubbly-awkward chemistry between the leads finds The Tomorrow Man operating in the best tradition of the romantic comedy, everything else about the film is just as securely trapped by the worst limitations of the genre. The biggest of these is simply the personalities of the protagonists: "prepper" and "hoarder" are used here solely as silly foibles, the kind of "ain't people silly?" quirks-as-identity that strangled the American indie comedy to death back in the 2000s. There are absolutely no nuances or implications to any of this - the closest that happens is a family dinner that is mostly noteworthy for how little it feels like anything else in the movie - and these traits barely rise up to the level of a genuine roadblock; when the time comes to solve these problems, they get solved with extremely little effort or interiority. Nobody thinks their way through anything; they just "power of love" themselves out of it. I mean, that's to be expected, but then why these particular traits, which feel so much bigger and heavier than the fluffy nothingness that the film makes out of them?

Which isn't to say that The Tomorrow Man is a fluffy nothing of a movie. It very much isn't, and that's very much to its discredit. The film has one man operating as all three of its writer, director, and cinematographer: Noble Jones, making his first feature. It's hardly a stretch to expect, then, that the writing, directing, and cinematography would all be pointing in the same general direction. Somehow, this does not happen, ruinously so. The screenplay is a lark about sweet weird people tentatively but warmly finding their way towards each other. The cinematography isn't larking at all: it's inordinately buffed and polished, weighted down with shot after shot of thick shadows and interior gloom. It is an oppressively solemn-looking movie, with the mournful underlit earthtones of a domestic drama about funeral preparations. If the goal was to suggest the insularity of the characters before they fall in love, it backfires spectacularly: there's nothing to contrast it with, just a non-stop array of gloom-soaked settings that do not remotely help set off the frivolous humor of the screenplay. It's like filling macaroons with concrete.

Jones-the-director, meanwhile, tries in some way to bridge Jones-the-writer and Jones-the-cinematographer. He certainly does great work in getting Lithgow and Danner at the same level of softly charming realist-whimsy, which helps keep the screenplay be at least a bit more grounded and less cloying; the staging and compositions, though, are so slow and methodical that the charm of the performances get hung in the same shroud as the lighting. It's just as solemn and airless, and miserably plodding on top of it: everything about the film is moving at half-speed, it feels like, and much of it consists of little or nothing more than watching people sitting in rooms monologuing. The lead actors are good enough at doing that for the film to almost feel like it has a pulse, but it's still a mostly drab, draining affair. It's the worst of both worlds: the scenario is too flighty to feel like it has stakes, and the tone is too grave for the scenario to sparkle, and so it really does all come down to: do you enjoy watching John Lithgow and Blythe Danner onscreen? Because they've both been in lots of other films, and lots of them are better than this.