The best thing about the new biopic Jobs is the one thing that seemed initially wrong with it; Ashton Kutcher. Kutcher, leaving Punk’d and That 70’s Show in the rearview, shows some real maturity and verve here. Pity that this meager movie leaves him high and dry. The biographical subject himself, a fastidious, detail-oriented perfectionist, would have sent this film back to the blueprint phase and requested something more powerful and streamlined.
In bringing the life of tech mogul and Apple founder Steve Jobs to the big screen, director Joshua Michael Stern and writer Matt Whitely focus not so much on the man, but his life’s work, namely the upswing of the company that he poured his deepest passion and efforts into. Sure, there’s some lip service paid to the less-than-positive attributes of Jobs’ personal life, but the overall approach rehashes most everything we already knew about the man, deifying his contributions along the way.
Stern obviously realizes that he has his work cut out for him, trying to sum-up and surmise Steve Jobs’ considerable accomplishments and creditable genius, while balancing that against all of his failings. Without anything to fill in the void between, the resulting portrait is typical; a successful man with a tremendous mind also happens to be a tremendous ass. The title suggests personable intimacy but there’s never a working portrait of the man, unless of course, he’s in the process of working. Instead, there’s alternate meaning in the clipped moniker, highlighting what seemed to matter most to the man himself—product and the effort necessary to achieve it.
In failing to add nuance to the personal and professional facets of Jobs, Stern and the tone-deaf screenplay set Kutcher and the rest of the movie up for failure. They may have sincere, positive intentions but the movie comes off as a boring, crummy, overly reverent puff piece that must bend the truth to near breaking so that even one of its ruptured themes may resonate. There’s no such thing as insightful in this version of the Jobs story; even the personal moments amount to information oft bandied about in the “visionary vs. douchebag” debate, without a whiff of anything approaching complexity.
Jobs begins at its decided end-point, which mercifully, isn’t the man’s death to pancreatic cancer in 2010, but his unveiling of the i-pod in 2001.The structure quickly backtracks to the 1970’s where we find Kutcher as a bearded, barefoot and self-possessed Jobs, dropping out of college to carve his own niche. It’s a smart move, because it allowes the picture to coast on the furtive act of creation and reap the rewards of watching innovation spring from inspiration. This also provides breathing room for Kutcher and co-star Josh Gad, playing Jobs’ partner Steve Wozniak, to develop a rapport the audience can invest in.
Unfortunately, that investment is largely squandered when we wander off from the start-up and join Jobs stepping into his role at Apple, the story moving from would-be entrepreneurship to behind-the-scenes board meetings and belabored tactical planning. Because Stern can’t find the right balance between worship and disdian, there are times when it seems like Kutcher’s Jobs might be legitimately schizophrenic.
Even when the film tries to be even-handed, it often lets Jobs off the hook, interrupting scenes of human failure with reminders of his professional ascension. Moments after Steve has kicked the mother of his child out for announcing her pregnancy, he’s standing in front of a mirror, incidentally gathering his future image as mentor and figurehead. There’s only so much any actor can do with that, and although Kutcher has brought his A-game, the court is empty.
Abandoning his kid, stiffing his co-founders in Apple, firing employees over font types, Jobs still avoids complete jerk status—so the film would argue—because of all the great breakthroughs attained by his offered sacrifice of family and friends. Here’s where the truth is played fast and loose, with responses to the i-pod concept resembling the awestruck rapture of Old Testament prophets receiving fresh revelation from God. To hear Stern and Whitely tell it, Jobs didn’t just perfect the concept of mp3 players, he out-and-out created them. Finessing these elements to come to that conclusion is unnecessary, as most will realize that trail-blazing and true ingenuity often come garbed as reinvention or repackaging; no one in the tech-world sniffs at a great accomplishment because it wasn’t wholly original. However, when the film has decided to argue that Jobs’ personal choices were directly tied to his success on the professional field, these milestones have to seem singular and unattainable without extreme action.
If a great performance were culled from solid acting alone, then Ashton Kutcher could have saved Jobs as a movie and given his critics a turn to choke on. Wearing the different private and public faces of this man, Kutcher shows a dose of wisdom and careful observation that’s masked by an unforced charm. It never feels very much like acting, nor is it just a case of a star wearing a beard and forcefully enunciating.
The truth is that any strong performance is also tied to script, dialogue, and direction, all of which are decidedly unfocused and haphazard regarding Jobs. There’s an emotional hole in the character, a hesitancy to fill it, and that albatross becomes Kutcher’s to carry around his neck. In the end, some critics may blame the film’s lack of impact on the young actor, but look closely and you will see that the precious metals were never really there to begin with.
The skill of David Fincher made The Social Network look easy, and Stern seems to have assumed that he could rustle-up something even better because of the scope and profile of his subject. If this film tells us anything it’s that even the most obvious aspects of the Apple success weren’t simply stumbled upon by happy accident, and that planning, passion, and persistence are necessaryfor any creation if it is to work as it should. Too bad then, that this Jobs is mostly a blank canvas.
Jobs is now playing in U.S. theaters.
This article was first posted on August 16, 2013