Producers: Debbie Liebling, Andy Daly, Michael B. Clark, Alex Turtletaub and Marc Turtletaub Director: Marc Turtletaub Screenplay: Gavin Steckler Cast: Ben Kingsley, Harriet Sansom Harris, Zoë Winters, Jade Quon, Andy George, Cody Castro, Aubie Merryless and Jane Curtin Distributor: Bleecker Street
Seniors can enjoy Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” as easily as their six-year-old grandkids, but long-time producer Marc Turtletaub has decided to give them their own version of it, in which the youngsters who adopt the extraterrestrial are replaced by a trio of seventy-somethings. “Jules,” as the result is called, is an oddly pleasant but rather undercooked dramedy about aging that seems at a loss about how to wrap things up, trying “Cocoon” on for size before deciding it doesn’t fit.
Ben Kingsley, tamping down his usual exuberance so much that if you squint you might mistake him for Mark Rylance, plays Milton. In the script by newcomer Gavin Steckler Milton’s the Elliott character played by young Henry Thomas in 1982, but here he’s a seventy-eight year old widower living a solitary life in a small Pennsylvania town; his main interests are watching certain television shows religiously, tending a backyard garden and taking to the microphone during the public comment opportunities at city council meetings, where he repeatedly suggests altering the town motto and installing a crosswalk that would make his trek to city hall safer. His daughter Denise (Zoë Winters), who runs a veterinary clinic, is concerned that his increasing forgetfulness might indicate the initial stages of dementia, but it’s hard to tell because his normal attitude is one of low-key somnolence. He antagonized his son, who lives on the West Coast, years ago, and they never speak.
One day Milton walks into his back yard to find that a space ship—an old-fashioned flying saucer, actually, has crash-landed then. His first reaction is to note that it crushed his azaleas and his birdbath. But he takes it in stride, only slightly miffed when his 911 call is treated as a prank, even after news reports on television begin asking for the help of the public in recovering a weather balloon that’s gone down somewhere in the area.
He is taken aback, though, when he finds an alien (Jade Quon, dressed in a body suit that makes her look like one of those “little green men” familiar from fifties sci-fi, except the suit is gray). Eventually he invites the creature inside, giving it a tour of the house and offering it food; all it appears to eat are apple slices, which prompts him to walk to the grocery and buy a bunch of apples, calmly informing Dave (Aubie Merryless), the teenage check-out clerk, that they’re for the alien living with him.
Milton also mentions the spaceship and the alien at his next commentary at the municipal council, but the only ones who seem to notice are his fellow regulars at the microphone: well-meaning widow Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris), who’s always proposing some scheme to serve the public good, and hardboiled Joyce (Jane Curtin), whose topic is always pickleball. Sandy makes a point of stopping by to see if Milton’s alright, and after an initial shock becomes his partner in taking care of Jules, as they call their guest. Joyce becomes suspicious of their new-found friendship, finds out what they’re up to, and joins them in their mission to protect Jules from prying eyes as they try to figure out how to help the little innocent fix the ship and go home.
All this while Denise drags Milton to be examined by a doctor (Anna George) who humiliates him with standardized tests of mental acuity and recommends he be sent to a group home, and Sandy is pleased that one of her do-gooder plans, involving troubled young people being partnered with seniors who can act as mentors, has found a taker in Danny (Cody Kostro), who shows up on her doorstep. Unfortunately things don’t go as she’d hoped, and only a telepathic intervention by Jules saves the day, though in a fashion that puzzles authorities, who begin taking an interest in these local eccentrics. Meanwhile Joyce is regaling her new friends with stories of her long-ago time in the “big city” of Pittsburgh, and federal authorities are still searching for the UFO and, apparently, getting closer to discovering where it went down.
The filmmakers struggle to tie all this together in a satisfying conclusion, with one element—the energy source Jules needs to start up the saucer—proving to be something more than a few viewers will find a bit tasteless (though it does afford Joyce the chance to make an atypical sacrifice) and Jules offering the trio the chance to escape earth (thus “Cocoon”), an attempted twist that proves oddly confusing and unsatisfying. But rest assured that everything turns out well for the three seniors, who are no longer the lonely individuals they used to be.
The stars, each in his own way, give more depth to this parable about the realities of aging than the frailly whimsical material deserves, with Kingsley’s withdrawn pain, Harris’ unquenchable sweetness and Curtin’s desperate toughness all representing different responses to their common plight, while Quon’s stillness is at once comforting and slightly scary. All benefit from the permissive but curiously solemn style of Turtletaub and editor Ayelet Gil-Efrat, who never seem to have decided on a style beyond the mildly peculiar. The technical contributions—Richard Hoover’s production design, Christopher Norr’s cinematography—have the bland competence typical of modestly budgeted pictures, and Volker Bertelmann’s score exudes niceness.
Despite the fact that “Jules” can be commended for trying to say something pointed about growing old alone in America, the weird genre-based premise it employs in the attempt comes across as precious rather than profound. In the end, unlike Jules’s ship, it remains earthbound, an “E.T.” without that undefinable touch of magic that would have made all the difference.