Credit: Bleecker Street/Linda Kallerus
by Steven Warner Featured Film Horizon Line

Jules — Marc Turtletaub

August 10, 2023

A trio of octogenarians have a close encounter of the third kind in Jules, director Marc Turtletaub’s high-concept dramedy that is, strangely enough, not the first film to mine such wild thematic territory — Ron Howard’s Cocoon beat it to the punch by a good 40 years. Whereas the large group of seniors featured in Cocoon were best friends who relied on each other even as their families — and by extension, society — pushed them to the sidelines, the three protagonists of Jules are defined solely by their isolation, a prison only partially of their own making. As the movies opens, Milton (Ben Kingsley), Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris), and Joyce (Jane Curtin) are seen attending their small town’s weekly community meeting, a brief open forum affording them the only opportunity for their voices to be heard, even as no one seems the least bit interested in what they have to say. The three individuals then immediately go their separate ways, returning to homes filled with deafening silence. Milton is estranged from one child and constantly at odds with another, while Sandy hasn’t seen her daughter in over five years. Joyce is proudly independent, but the cracks are beginning to show in her tough exterior.

All three individuals are soon united by a singular event — a spaceship crash landing in Milton’s backyard. He is deeply annoyed that the craft has destroyed both his azaleas and a bird bath, and seems borderline nonplussed when a small extraterrestrial with light-blue skin and giant black orbs for eyes crawls out of the wreckage and collapses at his backdoor. He eventually invites the creature in and nurses it back to health through a strict regimen of apples, water, and episodes of Dancing With the Stars. Milton is also prone to tell anyone who will listen about his miraculous finding, yet that pool of individuals proves small, and most view his ramblings as the byproduct of dementia, which has slowly begun to take hold of his once agile mind. A trip to Milton’s for use of a printer results in Sandy discovering the being, while busy-body Joyce and her constant snooping proves her entry into the proceedings. All three decide they must keep their newfound friend a secret, because they know what government agents do to aliens in the movies. And indeed, if Jules is to be believed, there is a special government task force located miles underground that monitors extraterrestrial activity.

The trio ultimately give their new friend the titular moniker — although Joyce prefers Gary — and adorn it in various comedic t-shirts; the film’s sense of humor is as gentle as the being that fuels its plot. Jules does not speak, but simply listens as his newfound friends talk about their lives — both past and present — as well as their present daily struggles. As Joyce says immediately upon meeting the little alien, “He has such understanding eyes.” Jules is a blank slate upon which the core trio — and by extension, of course, the audience — can project whatever they need to at any given moment, a plot device that serves to highlight how senior citizens have become so marginalized by society that their existence can come to feel like an afterthought. Turtletaub’s film goes out of its way to remind viewers that these individuals still have a voice, and a desire for it to be heard. Such messaging may not seem particularly profound — we are, after all, talking about a movie that uses a literal alien to remind audiences that we are not alone in this world — but it’s depressingly rare to find a movie whose core cast is over the age of 65 and yet doesn’t use their age as an excuse for cheap jokes at their expense.

Turtletaub and screenwriter Gavin Steckler have crafted a tale here that is about as “sweet” as they come, and while that can admittedly become cloying at times, there are also enough eccentric flourishes sprinkled throughout to keep the proceedings lively; examples include a striking performance of “Freebird” from Curtin that is intercut with a scene of violence, as well as exploding heads and a trunk full of dead cats — which admittedly sounds brutal, but it all works in the film’s final form. Turtletaub here exerts the same genteel control over tone he displayed in 2018’s equally high-concept and likeable dramedy Puzzle, while Kingsley delivers his best work in years and Harris and Curtin relish the opportunity to sink their teeth into meaty leading roles. Jules is precisely the type of film that, pre-Covid, would have opened in a few theaters and slowly built a following, ultimately playing for months as a word-of-mouth surprise hit, specifically among its core older demographic. In our new cinematic present, it gets a few hundred screens and minimal promotion before likely being unduly booted by week two. It’s a shame, because Turtletaub’s film is a throwback delight that deserves to find its audience. Jules may not be exactly out of this world, but it manages to find humanity where lesser films would have settled for twee metaphor, and proves transportive in ways entirely unexpected.

DIRECTOR: Marc Turtletaub;  CAST: Ben Kingsley, Harriet Sansom Harris, Zoe Winters;  DISTRIBUTOR: Bleecker Street;  IN THEATERS: August 11;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 27 min.

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