JULES (2023)

Jules is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.

When I was in high-school, I was in a production of a play called I'm Herbert (1967), a one-act, two-person comedy by Robert Anderson that depicts the confused bantering between an octogenarian married couple who are both losing their hearing, their memories, and their minds. (The "humor" comes from their inability to agree on any details of their lives together, up to and including their own names.)

We could argue about the relative appropriateness of staging this play with 16-year-old actors, but there's no argument about how stupid it was for our director—who would not be talked out of the idea—to volunteer us to perform it at the local senior-citizens center for actual octogenarians. We don't need to go into details—I have no desire to relive them—but it was probably the single most uncomfortable experience of my life, the polite laughter of grandmothers doing little to soften the feeling that we were a couple of teen-agers in bad makeup cruelly mocking old people to their faces.

I mention it because I had mild flashbacks to that experience while watching Marc Turtletaub's Jules (2023), and trying desperately to imagine who this movie is for. A gentle sci-fi comedy with elderly protagonists, the target audience for Jules would presumably be senior citizens who perhaps wonder—quite rightly—why such movies are never about them. (Even Cocoon gave an abundance of screen-time to then 20-something Steve Guttenberg.) And indeed, I was by far the youngest person at my screening, which is an increasingly rare experience for me.

But looking around at the seniors in the room I wondered whether they could possibly be enjoying this very strange, tonally confusing story, or be happy to see a depiction of elderly life that was neither precisely flattering nor particularly affirming. For all its gentle humor and considerable empathy, Jules ultimately struck me as a fairly sad, bleak, and somewhat comedically cruel depiction of aging.

Ben Kingsley plays Milton, a 79-year-old widower living alone—and slowly losing his faculties—in the small town of Boonton, Pennsylvania. His absent son doesn't speak to him, and his veterinarian daughter (Zoe Winters) only comes by to help him pay his bills and hector him about going to the doctor. Milton's chief occupation is going to town council meetings, where he repeats the same two suggestions over and over: changing the town motto, and putting in a crosswalk at a certain intersection. The council ignores these ideas, of course—as it does those of Milton's fellow senior eccentrics Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris) and Joyce (Jane Curtain)—but we understand that these municipal open-mike sessions (which appear to occur daily?) are a magnet for lonely old people who otherwise have nothing to do and no one to listen to them.

One day Milton adds a new complaint to his town-council testimony: A UFO has crashed in his backyard, taking out his azaleas and destroying his bird-bath. This is dismissed as completely as everything else Milton says, so he is left on his own to deal with the sexless, silent naked blue alien (played by Jade Quon, under a lot of makeup) who emerges weak and injured from the spaceship. Milton—finding this situation unusual, but not particularly alarming—brings the alien inside and gently nurses it back to health. Eventually, Sandy and Joyce also become alerted to its presence, and this trio rallies around protecting this strange placid creature they christen Jules.

An extremely odd but mostly harmless film, Jules feels like a cute idea for a short stretched out somewhat laboriously to feature-length. There is a plot, of sorts: The trio tries to figure out from cryptic clues what Jules needs to repair their spaceship, while vaguely sinister government agents narrow in on the extraterrestrial's presence. But the main focus of the film is on the seniors' quirky interactions with their new silent friend, who becomes a surrogate stand-in for their absent children: Here, finally, is someone who will listen to them. (Kingsley and Harris are both good, but it's Curtain who has the most weird fun with the part, as Joyce regales Jules with stories about her libidinous youth, and performs an impromptu and decidedly cringeworthy version of "Free Bird" for his entertainment.)

But the film's gentle humor and twee tone is complicated, not entirely successfully, by incredibly dark elements, both human-shaped and science-fiction based. Beneath their eccentricities and reputations as town cranks, all three human leads are incredibly lonely and cruelly abandoned, a desperately sad depiction of the senior years that is perhaps admirable in its honesty, but fatal to the crowd-pleasing warmth to which Jules seems to aspire. Milton is exhibiting signs of Alzheimer's and dementia—his daughter finds cans of green beans in the bathroom medicine cabinet—and harbors crushing guilt over how his failures as a father drove his son out of his life. Sandy proudly shows pictures of her daughter and daughter-in-law, but then confesses how she hasn't seen any of them in years. And Joyce's only relationship is with an elderly cat, whose eventual euthanasia becomes as bizarre and deeply disturbing a plot device as anything I've seen in a while.

Quon is excellent as the wordless alien: Content to listen attentively to endless stories—or just sit on the couch and watch CSI reruns—Jules is wonderful company for the seniors, a perfectly placid mirror for whatever they want or need to project onto them. But the alien's presence in their lives is no Cocoon-like magic solution to the problems of aging (except for a bold but tonally disastrous moment when Jules enacts a sudden violent revenge on someone who tries to prey on one of their new friends). For the most part, Jules's visit is just a brief, welcome, incredibly odd distraction from a status-quo state of existence we understand to be incredibly sad, and only destined to get sadder.

There are moments of fleeting charm and humor when Jules works, but overall the comfortingly twee approach clashes badly with darker specific elements and an overall pervading sense of depression. Ultimately, the film needed to be much darker to be interesting, or much lighter to be the quirky family-friendly fare its tone suggests. In its actual state, it's just a very strange, slight, occasionally amusing misfire.

My own mother is 82 now, and living alone much as Milton is. Jules definitely reminded me I should call her, but it didn't make me want to recommend this movie as something she was likely to enjoy.

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