Jules (Bleecker Street, PG-13)

Ever since the movie-making powers that be discovered that old people not only watch movies, but will go to see them in the theater, audiences have been treated to a succession of films featuring actors of a certain age dealing with old people problems within scripts of varying levels of development. Marc Turtletaub’s Jules fits firmly into that category, and actually fulfills the requirements pretty well—if the script by Gavin Steckler is slight, it also knows what it is and doesn’t try to pass itself off as more. By sticking to its lane, the script acts as an effective vehicle for a trio of veteran actors to show what they can do, and the resulting film is gentle and charming in a way designed to raise the spirits and quiet the inner grouch of even the grumpiest filmgoer.*

Milton (Sir Ben Kingsley) is a retired man who lives alone in a small town in western Pennsylvania. He spends his days watching TV and puttering about the house (which, to be fair, is very well kept), punctuated by what seems to be his primary social activity: attending town council meetings, where he makes variations of the same proposals over and over. His daughter Denise (Zoe Winters), a veterinarian in town, pops in regularly to help sort out the bills and check up on him. Recently she’s been noticing worrisome signs like canned vegetables shelved in the bathroom cabinets that suggest he’s suffering from dementia. She wants him to get a psychological evaluation and accept an appropriate level of care, while he likes his independence and gets his back up at the very suggestion that he might need help. That dynamic will be familiar to anyone who’s taken the responsibility for an aging parent, and it’s the kind of dilemma for which there is no good solution.

Then a spaceship lands in Milton’s back yard, carrying an alien (Jade Quon) whom Milton and his neighbors Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris, who will forever be Frazier’s agent Bebe Glazer to me) and Joyce (Jane Curtin) decide to call “Jules.” Or maybe there’s no spaceship and the whole thing is a metaphor, but I’m inclined to stick with the surface reading, particularly since otherwise there’s no explanation for some nonsense about men in suits trying to impose their authoritarian point of view on the little created family that forms around the alien’s presence.

Sandy has also been a regular presenter at the town council meetings, but she and Milton have never really acknowledged each other much, even though they’re both obviously in need of some human interaction. Unfortunately, the script portrays Sandy’s character as a kind of Holy Innocent who puts herself in a dangerous situation that a 10-year-old would have seen coming. I could have done without that particular plot element, since it’s possible to portray a character as unassuming and guileless (as is the case with Milton) without making them seem like a complete idiot.

Joyce’s character is sketched even more lightly (in truth, none of the characters in this film are particularly well-developed), but like Milton and Sandy she’s a kind person who has been left behind by life and desperately needs to connect with someone. In truth, the most fascinating character in the film is Jules, who appears to do practically nothing (which I understand is a really tough assignment for an actor, and one which Quon pulls off brilliantly) and in the process acts as a combination black mirror and Magic 8-Ball that allows the other characters to see themselves and each other more clearly—but only if they’re willing to do so.

I’m a sucker for films where the characters successfully create a chosen family, and that’s what Jules is all about. Being a person of a certain age myself, I particularly appreciate the acknowledgement that such quests aren’t limited to young adulthood, and that the ability to change yourself and the way you interact with others also has no expiration date. | Sarah Boslaugh

*Yes, I know I sound like Man in Chair from The Drowsy Chaperone, which just goes to show you that the need to see and be seen is not exclusive to any age category.

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