Review: Sir Ben Kingsley Finds the Heart and Emotional High Points of Feel-Good Alien Drama Jules

While filmmaker Marc Turtletaub has had a long and successful career as a producer, his latest work Jules is only his third as a director (following the intriguing Puzzle), and it follows his trend of choosing low-key, more nuanced stories (this one written by Gavin Steckler) that he finds ways to give larger meanings to through detailed performances. Jules begins simply enough, with an elderly gentlemen named Milton (Ben Kingsley) living a quiet, isolated life in a small town in western Pennsylvania. He’s showing the earliest signs of memory trouble, but that might simply be the result of not having much going on in his life that’s worth remembering.

Milton dutifully attends the local town council meetings with a handful of suggestions about traffic-flow issues and possibly changing the town’s motto. He actually has two grown children—a son who he doesn’t speak to any more, and daughter, Denise (Zoë Winters), who lives in town and is the only person who checks in on him regularly, clearly working up the courage to suggest he live in some sort of assisted-living situation. Then one day without warning, an alien spaceship lands in Milton’s backyard, crushing his flowers but otherwise not really complicating his life at all.

Not far from the craft is the body of its pilot, a pale, nearly featureless being who eventually awakes from the crash and immediately begins work on repairing its ship. Milton is decidedly nonplussed about the whole affair and invites the creature into his home to see if there’s anything in his kitchen that it might like to eat. The only thing it seems to favor are apple slices, which Milton immediately heads out to buy more of. Milton being Milton, he doesn’t hesitate to tell anyone who will listen that an alien ship has crashed into his flowers, but most everyone just thinks he’s losing his grip on reality. The exception is another town council meeting attendee, Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris), who asks to see the visitor and insists that Milton stop talking about it. She’s seen all the movies; she knows what the government will do if they find this new friend.

As I mentioned, it’s the performances that drive Jules (which is the name Sandy gives the alien). Kingsley will always search for the core of any character he plays, and his subtle ways of infusing Milton with compassion and empathy are immeasurable. He’s more than a little scared about his failing memory, but he’s more anxious that it will rob him of the thoughts he has about his late wife or anyone else who might be close to him. Sansom Harris is a delight as a person so desperate for new connections in her life she runs ads on Craig’s List looking for younger people to hang out with in order to learn from her and vice versa (the danger of this proposition never occurs to her). Even the actor under the makeup playing Jules (Jade Quon, primarily known as a stuntwoman, who recently doubled for Awkwafina in Renfield, and Peter Pan in Peter Pan & Wendy) manages to convey so much feeling, curiosity, and a secret protective nature for his new friends. The alien never speaks, but its attention is always focused on something, and that tells us what interests it.

Also on hand is Jane Curtin as Joyce, a nosy acquaintance of Milton and Sandy, who wants in on the alien action and attempts to take over the scenario—but not in a way that marks her as a potential problem. In the background of the film are scenes of government agents, fully aware that an alien craft is in the vicinity and frantically searching for it. And while those sequences seem a little cartoonish, they at least add a much-needed sense of tension to the proceedings. During the course of the film, Jules reveals a few unexpected abilities that seem to be tied to its emotional ties to its new caregivers, and the end result is a sweet, heartfelt, not especially original, but still quite amusing story about the importance of connection, particularly as we get older.

And of course, Jules is about the kindness of strangers. This charming movie has unexpected emotional high points in its final act, and I was surprised by how drawn in I became by this quirky little number. Let Jules turn on your heart light.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.