Synopsis: Milton lives a quiet life of routine in a small western Pennsylvania town but finds his day upended when a UFO and its extraterrestrial passenger crash land in his backyard.
Stars: Ben Kingsley, Harriet Sansom Harris, Zoë Winters, Jade Quon, Jane Curtin
Director: Marc Turtletaub
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: In my old age, I’m finding that I need more and more time to consider my opinions regarding mass media. The snap judgments and immediate instinct that I’ve followed for years still give me good guidance, but my feelings can increasingly change if I take the time to gather my thoughts. Had I not had the benefit of some breathing room after watching Jules, I may have written it up (off?) as another odd-duck effort from Sir Ben Kingsley. Admittedly, the Oscar-winner is a bit all over the map when it comes to film roles, and fresh from an appearance as Salvador Dalí in the paint-by-numbers biopic Dalíland, Kingsley is trying on another wiggy role and questionable accent in this light-as-air drama with a dash of comedy for spice and a tinge of sci-fi to give it color.
I did have that breathing room, though, and I found that in the days after watching Jules, my mind kept returning to it and the quiet way it respected its characters and, in turn, its audience. At a time when Hollywood and culture are doing all they can to snag a moment of your attention by any means necessary, it was pleasant to be in the presence of filmmakers that didn’t have to resort to big swooping statements or bombastic effects to tell a compelling story about humans and how we interact. Even a strange little nugget of a movie like this made for a pittance can exist longer in your consciousness than films with quadruple the budget and reach.
The weekly council meeting in Boonton, Pennsylvania, brings out the small town’s most eccentric residents and their standard requests. For Milton Robinson (Kingsley, Operation Finale), his persistent proposal involves changing the town motto, “A good place to call home,” into something ‘less confusing’ (i.e., it’s not an ideal place to “call” out from, and if you lived there already, why would you call home?). Most of the time, no one pays much attention, aside from Sandy (Harries Sansom Harris, Licorice Pizza) and Joyce (Jane Curtin, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), two single biddies that frequent the meetings, maybe to see what Milton is up to.
Then, one night, a spaceship inexplicably lands in the backyard of Milton’s somewhat secluded farmhouse, and eventually, a tiny alabaster-white-skinned alien (Jade Quon, Iron Man 3) emerges. Instead of having Milton react like the world is about to end, screenwriter Gavin Steckler has the elderly gentleman more troubled over his flora being crushed by the spacecraft. When the alien shows signs of being ill, Milton finds a way to coax it back to health, befriending it, feeding it, and introducing it to television. Though Milton is honest with anyone asking what’s new in his life, everyone from the town council to his frustrated daughter (Zoë Winters) thinks that the older man has finally left the deep end.
It isn’t long before a concerned Sandy gets involved and meets the alien she names Jules, followed by nosy Joyce, who isn’t about to let Sandy and Milton replace her grumpy company with a less abrasive extraterrestrial. Through their experience with Jules and spending less time alone, each aging individual learns something about their current place in life and the benefit of a shared community. As they work together to help their tiny friend fix their shuttle so it may return home, they’ll realize how much use they can still be to themselves and those around them.
Kingsley is arguably the star of Jules and does his best to appear appropriately shlumpy. However, he is never quite convincing as a man on the brink of losing everything (his house, mind, family) that finds stability with his new core group. Kingsley has always done best when he has a dynamic cast surrounding him, and that’s why the performances of Harris and Curtin function more often than not as an elevation tool when Kingsley can’t quite get there. Both gifted comedians, Harris and Curtin dial the comedy back and explore a more somber side of their acting. The results are quite moving, with Harris nailing a critical scene that exposes some familial hurt and Curtin fully committing to a wild performance of Free Bird.
I don’t want to make it sound like Kingsley isn’t good in the film or that he detracts from the overall warm feeling Jules will leave you with. His scenes with Quon (who, even without dialogue, is smashing) are strong, and I think he fits in with the film’s solemnity. There’s just a particular rhythm that Kingsley operates on that is hard to groove with. The more I sat with the film, the more I appreciated how subtle director Marc Turtletaub was in portraying small-town life during a bizarre time. This will likely slip by the radar of most audiences during its initial run, but if you have the chance, get in on Jules early. If you’re like me, appreciating its charms will take some extra time…but it will come.