Ben Kingsley, who likes to go to extremes, has played his share of frowningly overcivilized repressed geeks and also his share of seething walking-id maniacs. But for all of Kingsley’s dexterous light-and-dark range, it’s still rare to see him take on a character as painfully mild as Milton, the small-town codger he plays in “Jules.”
Milton, who is 78, lives by himself in a handsome dark-shingled house in Boonton, Penn. In the opening scene, he takes one of his long slow walks through town, then stands up at the open-mic forum in front of the Boonton city council, where he suggests changing the town motto from “A great place to call home” to “A great place to refer to as home.” He’s that kind of harmless eccentric fuddy-duddy with maybe a screw or two coming loose. The following week, he attends another city council meeting, where he stands up and says the exact same thing.
Milton, in his disheveled gray hair and plastic aviator frames, his ancient plaid shirts and open sweaters, with a stare of befuddled blankness (he looks like he hasn’t smiled in 40 years), might be losing his faculties, or maybe he was always on some sort of spectrum. He spends most of his time watching television, and when his daughter, Denise (Zoë Winters), visits him to organize the bills, she takes note of the fact that he has left a can of green beans in the medicine chest. She urges him to see a neurologist.
But “Jules,” which comes on like one of those quiet homespun indie portraits of The Quirkiness That Is Life, is not the film it first appears to be. Milton, as a character, is so blandly hemmed-in, so disaffected in his roteness, so limited in his curiosity about the outside world that the director, Marc Turtletaub, takes the attitude that he couldn’t possibly be all that interesting on his own. That’s why, one night, a flying saucer crashes in his backyard.
It’s not a very big flying saucer, maybe 20 feet across, looking like two metal soup bowls clomped together. And it’s the defining moment of what a lump Milton is that he greets the sight with a slightly anxious “Oh my,” instantly focusing in on the main effect of this cosmic event: The spaceship has landed on his azaleas and crushed his birdbath!
A bit later, he notices that an alien, perhaps injured, is laying a few feet from the ship. This is now officially a close-encounter movie, though the “joke,” for a while, is that Milton is as unaffected and unfazed by all of it as he is by everything else. When he tells a supermarket cashier, with utter matter-of-factness, about the alien, he just sounds like someone entering the early stages of dementia. And from what we can see, maybe he is. But even if that’s the case, he’s still an old man with mental slippage in the midst of a movie that feels like it wants to be a minimalist version of “Cocoon” sprinkled with the vibe of “Being There.”
The alien, played under a highly effective make-up job by Jade Quon, is a petite humanoid creature who looks exactly like all the drawings of aliens we’ve been seeing since the 1970s (bald, with dark android eyes and a slight pout of a mouth), and she seems to have been carved out of white wax. Most alien-visitation movies, from “Forbidden Planet” to “E.T.,” devote a good amount of time to discovering what makes the extraterrestrial tick, but in this case there isn’t much to discover. The alien, christened Jules, drinks water and eats apples; she never says anything; she sits on the couch with a doleful stare, watching “Judge Judy” with Milton.
Simply put, there isn’t enough going on in “Jules.” It’s a sweet but sodden trifle that’s overly pleased with itself, and while you can see, in the abstract, why Kingsley was drawn to playing this character, the movie doesn’t do with him what it should have done. It doesn’t use his relationship with the alien to tease out Milton’s inner quality of emotional magic. Jules the alien never becomes a tantalizingly ambiguous figure; she’s more like a figurine. A couple of Milton’s fellow senior-citizen city-council junkies, the ebullient Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris) and the sourball Joyce (Jane Curtin), become his co-conspirators in covering up the alien’s existence. They put Jules in a T-shirt that says “I’m not a lesbian…but my girlfriend is,” and then a Spuds MacKenzie T-shirt.
All very cute, but there’s no passion or lyricism to this movie. It’s a comedy sketch inflated into a wan fairy tale. Jane Curtin, at one point, gets to belt out her version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” and the alien reveals a hidden talent: If anyone threatens one of its friends, Jules’s face will turn blue and telepathically cause the assailant’s head to explode. There is, of course, a borderline nothing of a plot involving National Security agents and dead animals used as flying-saucer fuel. But as pleasant as Kingsley is in the role, the movie ends up wasting him. He never becomes more than mild, and neither does “Jules.”
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