I think of E.T. first and foremost as a film about what it’s like being a kid, especially a kid in a particular time and place; But what’s interesting to me about that is how that feeling persists despite how fantastical the actual story of the film is. In E.T., a boy discovers an alien in his backyard, and spends the final act of the film with his friends, evading government agents, trying to help that alien get back to his home planet; but what I remember most from the film is the smaller character moments: Elliott faking being sick so he can stay home and play with the alien he just met, Elliott spending the morning enthusiastically introducing that alien to all of his action figures, and explaining things like what soda is and how a Pez dispenser works. All the action and adventure elements make the story more thrilling, and many of those moments like the bicycles taking flight are iconic, but what a lot of the later E.T. knockoffs got wrong is that what earns all of those thrilling moments is having first said something real about the characters and their lives.
The elevator pitch for Jules (2023) might have been something like E.T. for the senior set, and it does play with a number of the same story beats, but the film is using those elements to do something more, telling what ends up being a fascinating story about aging. In Jules, Ben Kingsley plays Milton, a 78-year-old widower, who lives by himself in the house he raised his family in. He’s a bit of a crank, known for showing up to every town board meeting to make the same two proposals: that a crosswalk is needed in the part of town where he keeps getting tickets for jaywalking, and that the town needs to change their slogan to something less grammatically ambiguous. He has a strained relationship with his children, and his daughter, Denise (Zoë Winter), has started to worry about how forgetful he’s been of late. She becomes especially concerned when she learns that Milton has started telling people about an alien spacecraft that crash-landed in his backyard and is crushing his azaleas. She’s right to be worried about his forgetfulness, it’s a real problem and seems to be getting worse, but Milton’s right about the alien; there is a spacecraft in his backyard, and it is crushing his azaleas.
When we meet Milton at the start of the film, he hasn’t accepted yet that his memory is failing. He’s worried enough about the possibility that, when he initially sees the spaceship in his backyard, he knows he could be imagining it. When it’s still there the next morning, though, he accepts that it’s real and is a problem in need of a solution. A problem that becomes all the more pressing a couple of days later when he looks outside and sees that an alien has now emerged from the ship and is sprawled out on the ground by his backdoor.
There’s a not-too-subtle metaphor at work here. At a time when Milton is starting to feel like the sky is falling, the sky literally starts falling; at a time when Milton is finding the world more difficult to navigate and comprehend, something shows up to upend his whole understanding of the universe. The comparative virtue of the problem of having a spacecraft and alien land in his backyard, though, is that this ends up being something that feels less scary and more manageable to Milton than his own cognitive decline.
Milton’s initial impulse to solve his problem is to treat it like the problems of the crosswalk and town slogan; he decides to just bring it up at the next town hall meeting. So, he goes to the next meeting, waits his turn to speak, and tells the town board about his visitor. They of course don’t believe him, but how they do that is a little heartbreaking. They don’t argue with him or mock him. They don’t say anything at all. They see an old man with declining faculties and are embarrassed on his behalf. They let Milton take his seat again, not knowing what to say, and not wanting whatever it is he needs at the moment to become their problem.
Milton isn’t completely ignored by everyone in that room, though. Two older acquaintances of his who also come to these meetings to make their own recommendations to the board, are concerned about him and approach him afterwards. One is Joyce, played brilliantly by Jane Curtain, who initially chastises Milton because of his saying something kooky like that makes them all look bad. She will soften, though, when she eventually learns firsthand that he was telling the truth. The other is Sandy (Harriet Harris), who is more sympathetic from the start because she has lived through the cognitive decline of her late husband. She accompanies Milton back to his house to make sure that he’s ok, but winds up getting quite the surprise when she gets there.
The three of them, Milton, Sandy, and Joyce, are each contending with their own challenges that come with aging, but for a time at least, they will have some company to face those things with, all while taking part in a grand adventure. Some of the trappings of this story may make it seem like it’s some dour affair, but it’s not. It’s occasionally poignant, but more than anything it’s a light and funny ride.
How the film actually plays out is worth seeing for yourself. If you have seen E.T., then you can imagine some of the shape of the story for yourself, but Jules isn’t trying to be a ripoff. It doesn’t regurgitate anything from E.T. but it deliberately echoes that movie at times to be upfront about what it’s trying to say. As E.T. is an adventure story that is principally about what it’s like being a kid, Jules is an adventure story that’s principally built around the kids we all still are even when we’re growing old.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.