Silver Screen: Jobs **
A great American genius gets his life stuffed into a cookie-cutter biopic in Jobs, an intermittently successful but consistently underwhelming portrait of the man who helped create and popularize the machine on which I’m writing this review, then pioneered the programs I’m using to write it and the smartphone I used to check the movie times-- not to mention the man who helped launch a movie studio, Pixar, that produces at least one movie a year reviewed in these pages.
Steve Jobs’s influence on the modern world is almost impossible to overstate, although Ashton Kutcher proves his character is possible to overact. Kutcher stars as the tech savant and business wizard whose combined love of circuitry and artistry made him the toolmaker for the new millennium. He’s an odd but not entirely illogical choice for the role. The physical resemblance between the two men is significant, which Kutcher amplifies by aping Jobs’s physicality: the stooped walk, the fluttering hands when he speaks, the icy, silent stares. He’s less effective at conveying Jobs’s volatility-- shouting every potentially acrimonious line is his go-to technique-- although the film as a whole fails to comprehend Jobs’s complex psychology. It doesn’t help Kutcher’s case that he’s frequently performing alongside superior character actors in the supporting roles, notably J.K. Simmons, James Woods, Ron Eldard, and Matthew Modine. It’s essential that the famously mercurial, charismatic visionary dominate the screen, not get lost among bit players.
The movie strains for profundity early on in a montage sequence of Jobs’s youth, based on an acid trip he has recounted in interviews about his hippie-spiritualist post-college days, which intercuts scenes of him traveling through India and mooning over his girlfriend with shots of Kutcher, arms out, spinning in circles before rapturously collapsing in a wheat field. Director Joshua Michael Stern apes the mechanics of introspective visual storytelling without providing us with anything in particular to think about, or any images more significant than you might find in one of Kutcher’s commercials for Nikon.
The movie gathers some momentum after Jobs visits pal Steve Wozniak (played by a pretty good Josh Gad), the prototypical awkward computer nerd whose current hobby project happens to be the skeleton of the personal computer. Jobs immediately recognizes the machine’s brilliance and potential, and with his business savvy he and Wozniak launch Apple Computers out of Jobs’s parents’ garage.
Stern doesn’t cover Jobs’s entire, too-brief lifespan, but he comes close, opening with a scene of a graying Jobs debuting the iPod, then flashing back to his school days. The bulk of the movie, however, follows the classic narrative trajectory: the rise of Apple, Jobs’s ouster from the company he created, and then his glorious return. It’s as though screenwriter Matt Whiteley read the Walter Isaacson biography, then trimmed off all the parts that don’t fit neatly into the traditional screenplay constructs.
Jobs commits the cardinal sin of biopics about great thinkers: It reduces hours of laborious process and piecemeal inspiration into a series of epiphanies. All of Jobs’s ideas come to him as lightning bolts of brilliance, as if from out of the sky, and the movie reduces his genius to something bestowed upon him, like perfectly straight teeth. True, it’s difficult to distill the unspectacular creative process into something filmic-- but that’s the challenge. It’s especially galling in light of the subject matter; Jobs frequently berates collaborators for their failures of imagination and willingness to call something impossible because it hasn’t been achieved yet. The irony of his character railing against convention in such a rigidly conventional format is thick.
Stern and Whiteley lack the confidence to let viewers interpret these none-too-cryptic moments. “I can’t work with other people, do you know what I mean?” Jobs muses aloud to pal Wozniak after a disastrous business meeting at Atari. Yes, Ashton Kutcher Version of Steve Jobs, we know exactly what you mean. It would be difficult not to. Similarly, the first two acts of the movie are riddled with the bane of biopics: winking references based on hindsight. Every time some bit player spouts off a line like “Nobody is ever going to want their own personal computer!” or “This Macintosh project is a fool’s errand!” the actors might as well turn to the camera and give a thumbs up. It’s the worst kind of audience flattery. In one of the movie’s final scenes, Jobs is interrupted while listening to a portable CD player, then finds himself frustrated trying to shut it off. “Piece of junk,” he mutters, shortly before throwing the whole device in the trash. Because he invented the iPod. Get it?
Jobs is occasionally stirring, inspirational even, although that speaks more toward the subject than the artfulness of its presentation. In that way it’s similar to the even more hamfisted Jackie Robinson biopic Forty-two from earlier in the year. Not to compare apples to oranges, so to speak, but both Robinson and Jobs were fascinating men who led compelling lives. Even a mediocre presentation of their accomplishments is bound to have value, but that’s no credit to the writers and directors who adapt their stories. You may leave Jobs awed at the force of raw creativity and innovation, but you’ll wish that same spirit was actively applied to the film itself.