A sweet, whimsical tale in the mold of "Cocoon" as Ben Kingsley, Jane Curtin and Harriet Sansom Harris play oldsters whose mundane lives are transformed by an alien encounter.
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In my early years as a journalist I covered more local government meetings than I can count — city councils, county commissions, school boards, parks advisory committees, water management councils, you name it. It was a great way to learn the ropes but could also be incredibly tedious as these meetings sometimes stretched for hours and hours.
A recurring feature at these meetings was the public comment section, where anybody could get up and address the group about anything they wanted. Every such governmental body had at least one regular crank — somebody, often though not exclusively a senior citizen, who would use most every meeting to yammer on about something ridiculous. Everyone would roll their eyes as this person trudged to the front of the room for another random harangue.
“Jules” features not one but three of these people who makes themselves pests at the weekly city council meeting in fictional Boonton, Pa. The movie is not about what happens there, but the strange and wonderful events that bring them together as friends.
Ben Kingsley plays the main character, Milton, a widower age 78. He has wild poofy hair and an awkward manner. He makes the same plea every week to the council: suggesting they change the city motto — because he thinks “A Great Place to Call Home” implies placing a phone call to Booton rather than living there — and the need for a certain crosswalk. The elected officials project glassy stares during this weekly tedium.
Harriet Sansom Harris plays Sandy, whose addresses to the council at least change from week to week. She has a kind heart and her monologues embody her ideas to make the town a little nicer. Her current crusade is to promote conversations between old people like herself and young folks who could benefit from their their life experiences. Of course, it’s also a transparent ploy to ease her loneliness.
Jane Curtin is Joyce, the most outwardly nasty of the bunch. She’s a classic snoop and busybody who likes to criticize others while seeing nothing wrong with her own actions. She rambled around as a younger woman, never married and has wound up as the resident angry cat lady.
One evening, everyone is surprised when Milton’s speech changes, adding a coda at the end about the spaceship that has crash-landed in his azaleas. He’s already a little odd and forgetful — his daughter, Denise (Zoë Winters), complains about the can of green beans she found in his medicine cabinet — so everyone just assumes Milton has finally cracked. Maybe this will be a new weekly feature of his little speech.
As it turns out, Milton is suffering from the early stages of dementia — but he’s not lying about the little not-green spaceman.
Yes, this is a film about an alien invasion. But director Marc Turtletaub (“Puzzle”) and screenwriter Gavin Steckler are not aiming for pop xenophobia and CGI action. Instead, it’s a sweet and whimsical tale in the mold of “Cocoon” about how this trio of oldsters’ lives are transformed by the visitor.
Jumping past the obvious suspension-of-disbelief questions: yes, Milton does call 9-1-1 to report the crash, as well as telling it to the Boonton council and Denise. But nobody believes him. He hopes it will just go away, but then an injured alien emerges, about 4 feet tall and all white, with huge, expressive eyes. Both the saucer-like spaceship and spaceman are deliberately clichéd depictions, the sort of thing you might see in a 1950s movie or comic book.
Milton nurses it back to health and feeds it apples, the only food it will eat. They soon settle into a nice routine, watching Milton’s favorite TV shows. (“This channel shows the news that’s out there. This channel is the same except the people are a little angrier,” Milton instructs.) The alien does not talk, but seems to understand human speech. It will occasionally draw some pictures for Milton, or work on repairing its ship.
Eventually Sandy and Joyce are brought into the fold, and this is when the story really takes off. They name the alien Jules — though Joyce, ever the contrarian, prefers to call him Gary — and soon form their own little family unit. They’ve all seen sci-fi movies and knows what happens to aliens when the government shows up, so they agree to keep it secret until Jules/Gary can leave.
“I think Jules is on our side. So we need to be on his,” Sandy reasons.
Things go from there — some about the way you’d expect, and others at completely right angles from that. Believe it or not the alien, played by Jade Quon, is really not what the movie is “about.” It’s more of the MacGuffin that propels the plot without being of critical importance.
The biggest reason to watch the movie is the trio of lovely, layered performances from the lead actors. Kingsley, Curtin and Harris each give their characters little colors and flourishes that aren’t in the script. It’s what you’d expect from thespians with decades of screen experience who know how to register emotion and empathy, even when their characters aren’t necessarily the most interesting or sympathetic people as written.
Back in my reporting days, I eventually got to know the meeting cranks and some of them turned out to be genuinely interesting people with very atypical backgrounds and motivations. Like “Jules,” it’s a lesson that people need other people just as much as they need food or a place to call home.
For Milton, Joyce and Sandy, all it took was an otherworldly stranger entering the scene for them to stop being regarded as strangers in their own little town.