As much as I adore the senior cinema renaissance—a time when Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton are leading packs of grandmas on adventures to Italy, the Super Bowl, and cheerleading tryouts—there’s a sort of emptiness to many of these movies. Films like Poms and Book Club (both the first film and last May’s she-quel) find their older protagonists getting their groove back, while a more thinly sketched emotional arc plays out in the background, until everything ties up with a nice, happy ending. It’s aspirational, and moreover, it’s refreshing to see older actors make space for themselves in an industry that often doesn’t allow for it. But these joyous comedies shouldn’t always have to come at the cost of depth.
On the heels of 2023’s 80 For Brady and Book Club: The Next Chapter comes Jules, an entry into the senior cinema canon that brings a little more authenticity, without sacrificing any of the amusement viewers have come to expect from this subgenre. Its rural Pennsylvania setting might not be Rome, but when an alien spacecraft crash-lands in the backyard of Milton Robinson (Ben Kingsley), the ensuing adventure gets just as exotic—and not just in a “UFO Lands In the Backyard of Sweet Old Man” National Enquirer headline kind of way. The movie has a tighter, more out-there scope, but its ideas about aging and companionship are universal. Bolstered by a terrific core cast of older actors, Jules is a warm film that proves senior cinema doesn’t have to be the same fluff, repackaged several times over.
Milton lives in the same modest house in Boonton, Pennsylvania, where he’s spent most of his life. He raised his two children there, and has made a cozy, if lonely, life for himself now that both kids have moved out and his wife has passed. He tends to his azaleas and knows when to wake up from cat naps in time to catch his favorite evening procedurals on television. Milton’s consistent routine also involves the weekly city council meeting, where he proposes a change to the town slogan and a new crosswalk at a crowded intersection, always to no avail. But that doesn’t stop him and Boonton’s similarly concerned residents, Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris) and Joyce (Jane Curtin), from returning every week to plead their case.
The film’s small-town setting and comfortable pacing make for a soothing watch, at least until that UFO destroys Milton’s birdbath late one night. But Milton is more distressed about his azaleas being ruined by the ship than he is the child-sized gray alien lying unconscious outside of it. In fact, the extraterrestrial being receives a pretty warm welcome—literally. Milton lays a blanket over the alien before heading back inside for a full night’s sleep, as if nothing ever happened.
Jules matches Milton’s reserved demeanor by avoiding too much ostentation. The alien’s arrival doesn’t cause any initial pandemonium, and it’s enjoyable to see the film evade the temptation to go over the top too quickly when it does turn into a science-fiction flick. Even the little martian is a pleasant sight to behold. Jules could easily be schlocky and cheap, if director Marc Turtletaub opted to make the alien a piece of CGI rubbish. Instead, Jules is an actor (Jade Quon) in practical makeup, making the anthropomorphic being much more amusing to watch for 90 minutes, with its quiet, curious expressions fortifying the film’s relaxed atmosphere.
Even when Sandy and Joyce discover that the alien has started living with Milton—the creature munching on apples and sleeping in Milton’s spare bedroom—their shock and terror is perfectly attuned to the film’s light mood, quickly coming to a simmer as all three of them form a bond with their new visitor. It’s not long before Sandy gives the alien a name (you guessed it: Jules), and the three humans swear to protect Jules at any cost while the alien repairs its spaceship. We soon discover that the favor can be returned, when Jules psychically intervenes in an attack on Sandy, giving the film just the right amount of dramatic stakes to keep audiences consistently interested.
Jules is as much a movie about unconventional companionship as it is about strengthening the bonds between our fellow humans. Milton’s recently declining mental faculties have kept his daughter, Denise (Zoë Winters), at arm’s length. Denise’s father prides himself on his ability to live alone, but his fervent solitude only concerns her more. It doesn’t help that Sandy’s insistence that they keep Jules’ presence a secret between the three friends makes Milton seem increasingly aloof to Denise. The movie takes an unconventional approach to examining the precarious relationship between an older parent and their cautious child, and the film’s screenwriter, Gavin Steckler, skillfully excavates the humor of Milton’s situation without making light of sensitive subjects like caregiving and dementia.
That balance is not an easy one to nail, but Steckler’s writing oscillates between playful and earnest. Kingsley is more than up to that task himself, making Milton stoic and reserved—when Jules arrives, he tells the alien, “I’m not sure what to do, this hasn’t happened to me before”—while imbuing the character with a delightfully dry wit, perfectly contrasting Curtin and Harris’ performances.
Though we spend most of our time with Milton, it’s Sandy and Joyce who often steal every scene they’re in. Curtin, who is basically an authority on alien comedies after starring in Coneheads and 3rd Rock From the Sun, stays armed with her iconic comedic timing (one expertly read joke about her old life in the big city made me holler), and Harris matches Kingsley’s ability to cycle between hilarious line deliveries and big-hearted sentimentality, which blessedly never gets too saccharine. Sandy’s insistence that Jules must be cold leads to her gifting the creature with a joke T-shirt that her lesbian daughter left at home (“I’m not a lesbian…but my girlfriend is!”), a flawless synthesis of her character’s nature.
Like the extraterrestrial the film is named for, Jules is a harmless movie with an unexpectedly big heart. Some may fault its lack of risk-taking, but the film finds a moving richness in its simplicity. Its wonderfully character-driven writing crests in a climax that ties the film’s narrative together with more profundity than most of the oldster-led films of the last five years. There’s real purpose here outside of, “I’m getting older, but that doesn’t mean I have to give up!”
Jules has plenty to say about life and how the ways that we live it change as we age. It allows room for the melancholy of that sensation, and ultimately becomes a much more affecting film because of its refusal to push those complicated emotions away. Films about seniorhood can follow out-of-this-world adventures, and they can be realistic too—even if they’re about little gray aliens.
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