The Ben Kingsley vehicle is a sentimental flick aimed squarely at the AARP crowd, but lacks style and craft.
In a media landscape with fewer and fewer options actually targeted toward adults (often tied to the death of the mid-budget movie), audiences take the scraps they’re given and make the best of them. This is the space that Jules occupies, a sci-fi fairy tale about the specific loneliness of senior citizens who feel isolated, ignored, and afraid. It’s also a thin, often ham-fisted take on a tale that could have had real legs in more capable hands.
Ben Kingsley stars as Milton, a lonely widower who spends his days heading to town hall meetings just to bring up the same largely useless issues week after week and bumbling around his empty house. But when a flying saucer crashes in his backyard and the alien pilot needs his help, Milton finds himself opening up in ways he never thought possible.
Jules isn’t trying to tell a complicated sci-fi epic and it’s not trying to grapple with larger issues about our existence or even push our imaginations to rethink what aliens could be. There’s a reason the alien’s spaceship is a classic saucer and that the alien itself looks like every single drawing of an alien every kid ever made in math class in 1994. The film’s aims are to be simple and sweet, and it largely succeeds.
On the surface, there’s not much about Jules to object to. The problem is that there’s not very much to latch onto, either. The film wants to argue that the concerns of its senior citizen cast are being rudely overlooked and ignored, but it also spends a good deal of time turning those concerns into jokes worth ridiculing. It wants to have things both ways and struggles to commit to how it wants audiences to view its protagonists.
To be clear, Jules wants to keep the audience on Milton’s side, but it doesn’t really know how to give him or his friends Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris, Licorice Pizza, Phantom Thread) and Joyce (Jane Curtin) depth. They’re all likable enough but attempts to delve into their inner lives ring hollow. Ultimately, director Marc Turtletaub’s success as a producer (The Farewell, Loving) doesn’t quite live up to his efforts to bring this story to life.
Kingsley inhabits Milton well enough, really playing to his isolation and inner fears. Likewise, Harris’ ()’ nosy neighbor Sandy makes the perfect foil to his closed-off demeanor. She brings an airy optimism and makes it easy to root for them. Unfortunately, the otherwise excellent Curtin as Joyce, whose relationship to either Sandy or Milton is never particularly well-defined or understood. She mostly oscillates between gruff antagonist and oddball depending on the needs of the scene, with no real regard for who this woman really is.
Yet, the trio ultimately makes the case for why other films in the AARP genre, like 80 for Brady and Book Club, can do so well. With that much talent together on screen, you’re bound to get something pretty damn watchable.
But that’s about as good as Jules ever gets. It’s light and inoffensive and saccharine. Its attempts to speak to something real in the lives of older Americans give the film an emotional core, but the fluff surrounding it is more often middling than not. So is this E.T. for the elderly a bit of a mess? Yes. But it’s not one worth the effort to tear down. A little bit of harmless (if schlocky) heart never hurt anyone, but I’ll still be rooting for studios to do better.
Jules is currently playing in theaters.