Genial and easy going, but not particularly memorable, the small town sci-fi dramedy Jules should go down well with viewers who were too young to appreciate the likes of Ron Howard’s Cocoon back in the 1980s, but are age appropriate for such a tale today. That’s not a bad thing, and in fact, it’s a rather quaint change of pace, even if director Marc Turtletaub’s film is slight in nature. With a game cast, pleasing small town Americana vibes, and some unpredictable twists to keep things interesting, Jules is fine enough in the moment, but will likely last about as long in the memory as new information lasts in the head of the movie’s protagonist.
Ben Kingsley stars as septuagenarian Milton Robinson, a civic minded worrywart living in the small town of Boonton, Pennsylvania. His memory is beginning to fail him, and his veterinarian daughter, Denise (Zoe Winters) is growing concerned about his ability to remain at home alone. One evening, a spaceship crash lands in his backyard. Initially miffed that the UFO has trampled his flower bed more than curious or frightened, Milton decides to befriend the blue skinned, black eyed, mute, apple loving, androgynous alien inside (Jade Quon) when he sees that they are in bad shape. Of course, no one believes Milton when he tries to tell everyone around him that there’s a spaceperson living in his backyard, with most believing it’s mounting evidence of the old man’s senility. Milton and his new friend from another world eventually find help and kindred spirits among two other aging souls who frequent the same town council meetings he does: kindly and naive Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris) and spitfire Joyce (Jane Curtain).
Jules is one of those movies where the meaning is obvious and doesn’t run particularly deep, but it also isn’t getting anything wrong. As a depiction of growing lonely in old age, it succeeds at the basics thanks to not overthinking things and utilizing some good performances to add a little bit of depth. At first, Kingsley feels like an odd choice to playing a middle American everyman, but he’s such a seasoned performer that he practically melts into Milton’s cozy looking clothing. For their part, Harris brings a good amount of warmth, and Curtain brings a fighting spirit. Eventually the film will find this trio of newfound friends using the alien as a sounding board to talk about all of their worries and fears about growing older. The alien might not be able to react in any emotional way, but the actors are able to show the catharsis that the simple act of talking brings to them.
But Turtletaub (Puzzle) can’t quite find a way to make Jules into something more magnetizing outside of relying on the cast. At first, it’s hard to see where Jules is heading, or if it wants to be a serious drama about aging with a sci-fi twist or an all out elderly fantasy. Everything dealing with Milton’s deteriorating memory is handled with grace and dignity, but it’s also rather basic and uncomplicated. The aforementioned scenes where the protagonists vent to their grievances to the alien are too chatty and brisk to build much emotion on their own as written, so it entirely rests on the actor’s shoulders to sell the material. Turtletaub and screenwriter Gavin Steckler also struggle to come up with a satisfying ending, with the relatively short running time building to a conclusion that’s more of a shrug than a rousing send off.
There are also a pair of left field twists to be found in Jules that are worth noting without giving away. One works, and the other is so jarring that it threatens to derail the entire film. The one that works is gleefully weird, silly, and in borderline bad taste, but it’s certainly an interesting wrinkle that I didn’t see coming. The one that fails is a moment of outright brutality that’s intercut with other events happening at the same time that I’m not certain are supposed to be poignant or funny. At any rate, that misstep is easily the worst thing in the film, but I can see why it’s there. It’s so off putting that it manages to be the most memorable moment in an otherwise pat effort.
Jules moseys dutifully from beginning to end, but not to an overly slow degree. Turtletaub keeps things simple, gets out of the way of his cast, and lets the chips fall where they may. It’s halfway decent afternoon viewing, but not much else; hardly regrettable and easy to move on from.
Jules opens in select Canadian cities starting on Friday, August 18, 2023.
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