THE STORY – A man’s quiet life gets upended when a UFO crashes in his backyard in rural Pennsylvania. As he befriends the mysterious extraterrestrial, things start to get complicated when two neighbors discover it and the government quickly closes in.
THE CAST – Ben Kingsley, Harriet Sansom Harris, Zoë Winters, Jade Quon & Jane Curti
THE TEAM – Marc Turtletaub (Director) & Gavin Steckler (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 90 Minutes
Any plot synopsis of Marc Turtletaub’s “Jules” makes it sounds like a generic caper comedy for the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” set – “E.T.” as played by the cast of “Cocoon.” The beautiful thing about “Jules” is that it isn’t that at all. Instead, it is something much deeper and richer, a quirky character comedy about the loneliness of aging written and performed with uncommon sensitivity. It’s the kind of independent film that would have played for months on the late ’90s-early ’00s art house scene as word of mouth spread, and it makes you long for those days to return. “Jules” is a film that, much like its main character, is easy to dismiss on its face. But, much like its main character, it has more to offer than meets the eye.
Milton Robinson (Ben Kingsley) is having a tough time. His son isn’t speaking to him, his daughter (Zoe Winters) is overly attentive to his increasing forgetfulness, and his pleas to the town council for a crosswalk at an intersection he sees as dangerous fall on deaf ears week after week. And on top of all that, a spaceship has crash-landed into his azaleas. Before long, an alien emerges from it, and Milton helps nurse it back to health. When his retired neighbors Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris) and Joyce (Jane Curtin) discover that Milton wasn’t lying about his new houseguest, will they be able to keep it secret before the government finds out?
So far, so standard. But Gavin Steckler’s screenplay has so much more going on than it looks like at first glance. It’s easy to be swept away by Kingsley’s amusingly laconic Midwestern accent and tousled hair, especially when Volker Bertelmann’s score is so delightfully bouncy. However, the melancholy at the heart of the film proves to be the perfect counterbalance to its fantastical elements and comedic exteriors, anchoring the film in emotions that we rarely see on the big screen on such a small scale. Milton, Sandy, and Joyce don’t have much going on in their lives – Sandy and Milton’s spouses have passed, Joyce’s cat has so many ailments that it’s barely alive – and they are living in a world that doesn’t care much about them except for when they’re doing something “wrong” or when someone wants something from them. Now they find themselves in a situation that could turn deadly in any number of ways, and all they have is each other. Well, and the alien, too, but it seems to communicate solely in drawings of cats.
Watching Kingsley, Harris, and Curtin interact with the silent alien (played by Jade Quon) is often delightful. Harris’s reaction to first seeing the alien is comedic gold, a moment made for meme-ification, and Kingsley is equal parts charming and hilarious, giving his new houseguest a tour of the house – complete with instructions on how long to wait for the hot water in the bathroom. Unlike the other two, who are more wary at first, Joyce immediately latches on to the alien as a captive audience, and Curtin tears through a monologue about her past life in the “big city” (Pittsburgh) with quietly passionate fervor. These roles are gifts to the actors who get to play them, full of humor as well as a surprising amount of pathos that gets threaded throughout the movie instead of just being inserted at the end for cheap sentiment. No, “Jules” earns its emotional ending by treating its central trio of characters as real people with complex histories and specific needs. The film never emphasizes it too much, but the constant undercurrent of loneliness that connects these characters is made palpable by the performances, as is the joy that this connection brings them. This is accomplished by all involved with the lightest of light touches, making the film sneakily easy to enjoy even as it deals with serious issues.
It’s perhaps not surprising to see actors of this caliber knock something like this out of the park, but films with roles like this that require every tool in a performer’s arsenal, are rare for our older performers. When was the last time Curtin had a part that required her to show such range? Or when Kingsley had to be this ordinary? Or when Harris has gotten a role this good that was longer than one scene in a Paul Thomas Anderson film? None of these things happen often these days, which makes something like “Jules” such a delightful surprise. That it’s so well-made and fun to watch makes it an easy film to recommend to everyone.