Jules (2023)

Otherworldly ‘Jules’ is one for the aged

In a tiny western Pennsylvania town where the motto is, “A good place to call home,” we’re introduced to a lonely widower negotiating life’s final turn. That he’s played by Sir Ben Kingsley is all the incentive necessary to invest in a silver-haired “E.T.” in which three aged earthlings bond over a diminutive alien outfitted in an array of souvenir T-shirts. “Call home,” indeed. All that’s missing is the bike streaking across the face of the moon.

But what “Jules” lacks in originality is counterbalanced by a sweet, but clumsy, reminder that you’re never too old to embark on an out-of-this-world adventure; let’s say one launched when a flying saucer crash-lands into your prized azaleas. It could happen, right? Not bloody likely, but it could. And in order to become immersed in Marc Turtletaub’s follow-up to the director’s equally twee “Puzzle,” you must surrender to the improbable.

The presence of a thespian as masterful as Kingsley aids immensely in achieving that prerequisite. As the slightly doddering Milton Robinson, the Oscar winner practically disappears behind a disheveled mass of curls and a schlumpy wardrobe, as he endures a zombie-like existence. Milt, as he likes to be called, is clearly slipping, but he doesn’t need his overprotective daughter, Denise (Zoe Winters), constantly reminding him of it. She wants him to take a cognitive exam. He refuses. So, back and forth they go.

Hearing rumors that Dad is telling folks he’s sharing his home with an apple-loving alien (not the “illegal” kind, we’re repeatedly reminded) only strengthens Denise’s resolve to get him to a head doctor. But we know better. So do his two equally marginalized new pals, Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris) and Joyce (Jane Curtin). They, too, have met the little visitor they’ve affectionately dubbed Jules, or Gary as Joyce likes to call him. What the trio cherishes most about the mute extraterrestrial (brilliantly brought to life by stunt woman Jade Quon) is that he/she is the one pair of ears that actually listens to their assorted grievances, from neglectful children to the town’s vaguely worded motto. Milt insists it can be interpreted as a good place to stop and “phone home.”

Get it? “Phone home?” Yes, that’s the degree of imitation in a first-time screenplay by Gavin Steckler, employing the hallmarks of his history as a TV writer. Ergo, the humor is stilted and predictable, the plot formulaic and the characters, especially the women, verging on hollow. But there exists an underlying pathos dealing with loneliness and aging, albeit manifested in myriad stereotypes heeped upon eccentric elders. And what registers conclusively is the truth of how society is quick to cast aside anyone over 70. The clearest evidence are the rolled eyeballs directed at Milt whenever mentioning his home becoming an Airbnb for E.T.s.

At times, it’s difficult to determine whether Steckler’s script is advocating for, or mocking, the people he presumably seeks to champion. There’s much too much of Milt exposing Jules to his plethora of favorite TV programs, all geared toward the most simple-minded. It’s a wonder Jules doesn’t devolve into a couch potato as dense as the humans he/she has intruded upon.

Here’s where Kingsley comes to Turtletaub’s rescue, lending gravitas and subtlety to a character who on paper borders on rote. It’s a superlative performance enhanced by Kingsley’s kind, crinkly eyes peering through wire specs that, like Milt, have seen better days. He also enjoys a warm comradery with Harris and Curtin, working overtime to enable Sandy and Joyce to blossom beyond their one-dimensional state. Curtin is especially strong, fleshing out Joyce to become considerably more relevant than a lonesome “cat lady.”

Ah, cats! They play a substantial role here, and not in a warm and fuzzy way if you are a lover of felines. Their significance is revealed in the final act, and when the time comes, you’re not sure if you should laugh or cringe. It’s that stupid. And therein resides the film’s most glaring flaw: it’s penchant for the cheap laugh. This is no doubt a liability born of Steckler’s past life as a sitcom writer. And it can get tedious – fast.

Resistance is futile, especially with Kingsley, Harris and Curtin, the one-time Conehead, around demonstrating that talented actors can make even the most inane of scripts sing. It’s a struggle for them at times, but when all is said and probed, they emerge victorious, delivering something otherworldly, yet oddly down to earth.

Movie review


Rated: PG-13 for strong language

Cast: Ben Kingsley, Jane Curtin, Harriet Sansom Harris and Zoe Winters

Director: Marc Turtletaub

Writer: Gavin Steckler

Runtime: 87 minutes

Grade: B-

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