Jules is one of those films that doesn’t fit into a box. Quirky, heartbreaking, funny, unsettling, and sincere all describe the movie in equal measure. However, not all these ideas complement each other, and the effect leaves the viewer as confused as the film’s protagonist. This is either a brilliant commentary on the mental decline of older people or an accidental juxtaposition of themes that simply don’t work together. With any other cast, the film would have been a mess. This cast directed by Marc Turtletaub makes it, at the very least, memorable and at most, an actual delight.
The film centers on Milton (Ben Kingsley) a widower who lives alone and sticks very close to a set routine. Denise (Zoe Winters) cares for her father, concerned that he should seek help for signs of mental decline. After an alien spaceship crash lands in his azaleas his new behavior further reinforces to his daughter that he is growing unwell. Struggling with the denial of losing his mind and knowing what he is experiencing, Milton befriends the alien, nursing it back to health and enjoying its nonjudgmental company. Soon his neighbors Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris) and Joyce (Jane Curtin) learn his secret and likewise find comfort in the gentle comradery of the extra-terrestrial.
Kingsley, Harris, and Curtin each turn fine performances that reveal delicate characters, barely hanging on as the world moves on without them. For Kingsley, this is a far departure from the strong characters he has previously portrayed. Milton’s fragility is heartbreaking to watch, and Kingsley plays him with a determined sincerity. Harris and Curtin also bring a lightness to otherwise damaged individuals. Under a different cast, these characters could be tragic, weighed down by grief and isolation. However, the veteran actors imbue them with a lightness and innocence that is endearing.
The script by Gavin Steckler is simple. It is refreshing to have, at its heart, a sci-fi story that does not waste time on the origins of the alien, how his ship operates, why cats are fuel, or what brought him to Earth. It is ET: The Extra-Terrestrial for geriatrics. Despite being the titular character, Jules is not the focus. Steckler asks the audience to accept that a spaceman crashed to Earth, only eats apples, and wants to get home. Steckler draws the parallel of Milton accepting that an alien has crashed in his azaleas but refusing to accept that his mental wherewithal is declining. A subplot featuring agents hunting the downed spacecraft never builds to anything and seems tacked on to fill the relatively low runtime.
Director Turtletaub does a commendable job propelling the film along. Light on material, no scene overstays its welcome. Aided by the charisma of his cast, Turtletaub utilizes pauses and breaks in dialogue to highlight that every decision and action requires some effort from the characters. This along with the unsightly design of Jules builds a sense of uneasiness. It is unnerving but keeps the audience invested. The unpredictability makes the film stand out as something unique.
Ultimately, Jules comes across as a mixed bag. On one hand, a superb cast delivers emotional and fragile performances. On the other, the film muddles its message of accepting the consequences of aging. An unnecessary subplot distracts from the film’s point and nearly upends the balance of heart and humor. Director Turtletaub navigates this deftly though and delivers a film that is simple yet memorable.