|Director: Mark Turtletaub
|Screenplay: Gavin Steckler
|Stars: Ben Kingsley (Milton Robinson), Harriet Harris (Sandy), Jane Curtin (Joyce), Zoë Winters (Denise), Jade Quon (Jules), Teddy Cañez (Mayor Martinez), Narea Kang (Councilwoman Wu), Edward James Hyland (Councilman Daniels), Blair Baker (Councilwoman Strauss), Joshua Moore (Steve Gorham)
|MPAA Rating: PG-13
|Year of Release: 2023
I wanted to like Jules, an affable, off-beat dramedy about a trio of senior citizens who befriend a mute, child-like green alien that crash-lands in one of their backyards, more than I did. The film works well enough when it is dealing with the alternately comic and painful realities of aging, with the venerable Ben Kingsley leading the way as protagonist Milton Robinson, an almost-octogenarian who lives alone in a large, two-story house. He regularly shrugs off would-be help from his veterinarian daughter, Denise (Zoë Winters), who worries about his putting canned vegetables in the bathroom cabinet and newspapers in the freezer, and attends the weekly city council meeting, where he repeats the same suggestion that his small, Pennsylvania town change its motto from “A good place to call home” because he finds it confusing.
These city council meetings are also attended by Sandy (Harriet Harris), a widow who makes all kinds of cheerful suggestions about new city programs, and Joyce (Jane Curtain), who is Sandy’s curmudgeonly opposite. The spaceship crashes in Milton’s backyard, and for several days he can’t get anyone to believe him (including the 911 operator who informs him it is felony to make prank calls to 911). Soon after he sees the crashed ship, he spies its pilot, a small, green humanoid who he first sees sprawled out on the ground. Not knowing what else to do, he puts a blanket over the alien and leaves him a cup of water. The next day the alien has moved to a sitting position, and soon thereafter he invites him into the house and discovers that he loves to eat apples. Eventually, Sandy and Joyce find out about Milton’s extra-terrestrial visitor, who begins trying to fix his spaceship. They name him Jules and do what they can to help even though there is no sensible way to communicate since Jules doesn’t understand English and apparently does not use his mouth to communicate, since never a word or sound is uttered. (In one of the movie’s weirder plot turns, they figure out that Jules needs six dead cats to repair his ship. Some kind of ALF reference?) There is some mild tension when government agents in black suits begin to clue into what Milton is hiding in his house, but it never amounts to much even though the film is clearly building to some kind of climatic chase in which Milton, Sandy, and Joyce try to help Jules get home before the men in black get their hands on him (since this plot sounds somewhat familiar to E.T., I can’t imagine that the town’s motto about calling home not being a reference to Spielberg’s masterpiece).
Of course, making comparisons to E.T. only makes Jules feel like that much more of a pale shadow, although it has quite a bit going for it. Kingsley, Harris, and Curtin all deliver solid, engaging performances that balance off-beat comedy with genuine pathos regarding the challenges of growing old (Milton’s failing cognitive state is never played for laughs, especially in a scene in which Denise convinces him to go in for cognitive testing). Screenwriter Gavin Steckler, whose previous work has been for the television series Playing House and Review, gives the actors some good scenes and a few choice lines (Sandy’s response to seeing Jules for the first time is unexpected and funny).
Director Marc Turtletaub started as a producer for films like Little Miss Sunshine (2004) and Loving (2017) before moving into the director’s chair with the critically derided, unreleased comedy Gods Behaving Badly (2013) and the much better received Puzzle (2018). Turtletaub is not a particularly visual director, but he knows how to exploit a good shot for comic effect and he clearly recognizes the potential in his main stars’ expressive faces. The cinematography by the veteran Christopher Norr (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) gives the limited proceedings a bit of visual flair, although more effective is Volker Bertelmann’s jaunty score, which is a far cry from the brooding, percussive tones that won him an Oscar earlier this year for All Quiet on the Western Front (2022).
While that mix of talent might suggest something special, Jules is really just an odd film, one that often feels thin and low-budget, especially when we first see Jules (Jade Quon) and feel the immediate sense of disappointment that he is such a conventional alien humanoid, green-skinned and bulbous-headed with big black eyes and a perpetually downturned mouth like a toddler about to cry. Yet, like the film itself, Jules grows on you over time, even if he never quite achieves a real sense of emotional connection, which is why the film’s heavier lifting has to be done by the subplots involving the inescapable effects of advanced age. Had it all been stitched together better, Jules might have been something closer to delightful.
Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick
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