There are plenty of standards by which to measure the new film about Apple’s founder. Jobs aspires to tell the story of a complex genius and his beloved company, and the comparison the marketing department would love to sell you is that this film belongs in the same rarefied air as The Social Network. It doesn’t. Ashton Kutcher’s camp would have you believe that his performance will stand beside Jamie Foxx’s in Ray as the kind of transformative star vehicle that can take a mildly regarded comic and place him squarely in a much heavier weight class. It won’t. Steve Jobs’ life was a quintessential American success tale, made all the more fascinating by the bridges he burned and the machines he built and sold. But there is no story here—just an obsequious geek highlight reel that provides a window into a company’s trophy room rather than an iconoclast’s soul.
These kinds of stories are both easy and difficult to tell. There is a blueprint for the biopic that is so simple it’s nearly paint-by-numbers—just ask the Lifetime Movie Network. But the problem with following that plan, especially in the service of someone like Steve Jobs, is that a film aiming to be the iPhone can end up feeling like a Droid. In order to transcend the tropes that can drag down the retelling of a grand life, you need a compelling reason to believe in the singular vision of a tortured genius. Because, more often than not, that genius tortures those around him, demanding perfection and alienating anyone who cares, audience included. And although almost everyone can identify with his creations, Jobs makes it incredibly difficult to empathize with the creator. He’s written (from a script by Matt Whiteley) as cold, calculating, and narcissistic. Those close to him either suffer his legendary wrath or are left to wonder if he was ever really a friend. Kutcher plays this as a swinging pendulum, smugly manic in the pursuit of validating success, or depressively lashing out at those he vilifies, fairly or not. He inhabits Jobs’ skin, but not his mind. The Apple CEO’s physical characteristics—wire-rimmed glasses, dark turtlenecks, his gait—are all present and accounted for, but that’s where the resemblance ends. His gifts for inspiration and innovation are reduced to didactic platitudes, a sin whose fault can be parsed equally between clumsy writing, Kutcher’s limitations, and editing that is overlong, yet still somehow impatient.
The choppiness of the film makes it both saccharine and strangely emotionless. There are watershed moments etched in the cultural consciousness that resonate because of their standalone import—the first Macintosh being assembled, or the discussion of the company’s name between Jobs and his co-founder, Steve Wozniak (an affecting Josh Gad). But this is supposed to be the story of the man, not the myth, and director Joshua Michael Stern can’t seem to stop conflating the two. As a result, the other moments that should ooze gravitas—Wozniak leaving the company, Jobs finally softening enough to have a family, the personal triumphs, not just the professional ones—are completely hollow. Our titular antihero acquires a wife, a son, and mends his relationship with an estranged daughter by virtue of a clumsy flash forward, with no catharsis or sense of journey. His only interaction with his son Reed is yelling at him to stay out of the garden—ostensibly showing us that he’s still a demanding boss, even in his own backyard. But the resulting impression is that family and friends mean nothing to him—only his company can give him temporary relief from the internal strife and abject loneliness that are often the burdens of the “crazy ones.”
For a film so slavish to glorifying the history of Apple, it doesn’t do the memory of Jobs many favors. Through Stern’s eyes, the best moments of Jobs’ life are successful marketing campaigns and getting revenge on those who have wronged him. The board of directors, led by the always-excellent J.K. Simmons as the sanguine Arthur Rock, is chief among those enemies. The embattled Jobs does find time to scream at a faceless Bill Gates and develop conspiracy theories nearly on par with John Nash’s paranoia in A Beautiful Mind. But once Jobs returns to power, he’s already sold out all of his old friends—the only thing left to do is turn the democracy that betrayed him into a monarchy for which he is solely responsible. The subtext here is the validation of a totalitarian regime at the tech giant, an uncomfortable note that is mistakenly played for bittersweet victory, the beautiful, profitable end results always justifying the brutal means.
Jobs is certainly an ambitious venture. The man and his legend cast a long shadow, one that could overwhelm even the most capable of filmmakers. It is telling that details involving Jobs’ instrumental role in the founding of Pixar and his struggle with pancreatic cancer are omitted here. The record of his professional achievements without the backdrop of meaningful personal struggles ends up dooming this portrait. Not because the details are off, but because the focus is. Nobody roots for a CEO to make more money. Jobs’ success is already evident in our pockets and on our desks—it is his humanity that is fascinating. It’s a shame that a man who was inspirational, enigmatic and controversial is reduced to a quibbling, egotistical executive. It deadens the impact of an innovative icon who never would have let something this bland off of his drawing board.
Director: Joshua Michael Stern
Writer: Matt Whiteley
Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad
Release Date: Aug. 16, 2013