Director: Joshua Michael Stern
Starring: Ashton Kutcher, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Modine, J.K. Simmons, Lesley Ann Warren, James Woods, Ahna O' Reilly, John Getz,Victor Rasuk
Running Time: 122 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
There's a scene in Joshua Michael Stern's biopic, Jobs, when Steve Jobs is informed by his pregnant girlfriend that he's the baby's the father. He screams at her, asking how she could do this to him, before kicking her out without so much as an explanation. He looks at himself in the mirror, shaking and sweating uncontrollably before pulling back his long, messy hair and making a decision. From this point on, NOTHING will get in the way of him building his company. Not even his own daughter, whom he disowns. And with that, Jobs' transformation from free thinking hippie to meglomaniac begins, kicking off the film's strongest section, which details Apple's early days in the late 70's and early 80's. While everyone was understandably worried about Ashton Kutcher's casting, this is the portion where he really excels. The star can't be blamed for the film's problems, which are fewer than expected. It's a standard, efficiently made biopic of an American visionary that highlights both the advantages and pitfalls of taking the conventional approach with such a deeply complicated figure.
The paint-by-numbers biopic is a tricky beast. It streamlines an entire life, zeroing in only what's important to making thematic sense of the subject while often simultaneously coming off as the cliffs notes version of a far more intriguing story. Both are definitely at play here and with all the ground that needs covering there is a lingering feeling this material could have been better served as a TV miniseries. For the most part, it's all condensed well, with the exception of one huge gaping hole. While an important chunk of time is left out, it definitely opens the floodgates for its potential exploration in the upcoming Aaron Sorkin-penned biopic. What's delivered is better than expected, even if complaints that it only skims the surface are somewhat valid. With a subject like Jobs, the depths to plumb just might be endless.
After opening with Steve Jobs' (Kutcher) 2001 introduction of the iPod at a town hall meeting, the film flashes back to his drug-hazed days auditing classes at Reed College in the mid 70's. Influenced by calligraphy, eastern religion and LSD experimentation, Jobs and best friend Daniel Kottke (Lukas Haas) trek to India before he returns home to Los Altos, California to work for Atari. With poor social skills and an inability work for anyone but himself, he ends up forming a business partnership with longtime pal Steve "Woz" Wozniak (Josh Gad), who's built a revolutionary personal computer that later comes to be known as the Apple I. They work out of the Jobs family garage with a group of friends (who would all later become millionaires) before earning their first sales contract and eventually attracting the interest of Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), who bravely invests in Apple, seeing its potential. The rest, as they say, is history. But it's a complicated history, wherein Jobs sabatoges his personal life and alienates his closest friends to reach his goals before eventually being ousted from the very company he founded.
There's a real sense of discovery in the early scenes in the garage with Jobs and Woz as we watch them share in their germ of an idea that would eventually become Apple Computer. Hustling, they move the product with no experience at all, even if it's obvious that Jobs is the natural salesman and Woz the idea man. Their relationship is painted in broad strokes by Stern, to the point that the real Woz has taken exception to its depiction. It's not hard to see why, since the character is portrayed as sort of a sidekick to Jobs, stuffing his face with burritos and cracking jokes as his more determined, motivated friend gets increasingly serious about the direction of the business. But Woz is no dummy, nor is he depicted as such, as his technical expertise is suitably highlighted. It's an affectionate portrayal livened by Gad's performance and as far as the creative liberties go, it seems like a small offense to not present the partnership between the two as equal. In Jobs' mind, it likely never was anyway.
The depiction of the man himself seems more in line with what we've seen and read, with little exaggeration. It's almost impossible to watch the early 80's Apple heyday depicted without thinking of the narrative of The Social Network, a film that took even greater liberties with the truth (and was far stronger because of it). While this comes closer to a TV movie version of that, the similarities are undeniable, with a volatile, forward-thinking, Aspergers-like genius who even ends up screwing his friends out of their shares of the company. It's here where Kutcher really comes alive and what's most surprising is just how closely he physically resembled the real man, which strangely wasn't so obvious until he put on the suit and tie. Storming through Apple offices and publicly humiliating and firing employees, his obsession with functionality, design, and aesthetics is what drives him (while also driving employees crazy) . In a way, the entire movie is almost completely about history proving Steve Jobs right when everyone else was wrong. Whether that justified the behavior or not will ultimately be up to the viewer, but the result is a portrayal that's both accurately unflattering and somewhat saintly all at once.
While Sorkin's Social Network script basically slandered Mark Zuckerberg (and that's coming from someone who ranks it amongst their all-time favorite films), it had the courage of its convictions. Inside him was a giant hole left by his success that could never be filled. His inability to fit in and get the girl drove his every action, eventually culminating in an unforgettable finale. There are no such revelations about Jobs here, despite him being just as complicated a figure, if not more so. The only difference is that he's more universally respected, which could have contributed to the touchy-feely treatment. Him disowning his daughter Lisa and their eventual reconciliation is clearly Jobs' "Rosebud," but the latter isn't shown. The biggest business mistake he ever made is though, as he tops a long list of rebellious innovators who decided to go public, with disastrous results.
With his installation of Pepsi CEO John Sculley (Matthew Modine), he essentially signed his own pink slip as he now had a board to answer to (led by a clueless Arthur Rock, well played by J. K. Simmons). It was an obvious recipe for disaster for Jobs, but also begs the question of just how free a spirit he really was. Reconciling the rebellious, drug taking hippie at the film's start with a businessman who basically sold out to the highest bidder is always bubbling under the surface, but never quite breaks through. It comes up a lot in our culture and is why I always felt a biopic of George Lucas is great, uncharted territory, as his personal and professional life would make him the only public figure with the potential to yield as many interesting questions as that of Jobs.
Other than Kutcher, the only other portrayal of Steve Jobs on screen came from Noah Wyle in the 1999 TNT movie, Pirates of Silicon Valley, which covered much of what makes up the most exciting time frame in this, only juxtaposed with a young Bill Gates' rise to prominence as founder of Microsoft. The only capacity in which Gates is acknowledged here (but not shown) is when he's on the receiving end of a verbal tirade from Jobs for allegedly stealing Apple software. While it's probably unfair to both actors to compare performances from different mediums, it's the only previous incarnation of Jobs we have to go on. Wyle's performance was much stronger, which is really saying something since Kutcher's quite good throughout. In fact, Wyle so inhabited the role that Steve Jobs (who hated the movie) went so far as to invite the actor to appear at conferences impersonating him. A huge compliment, but he was right. Wyle completely nailed it, and if we're going down this road again soon with a second biopic, he deserves to top the casting wish list.
With the exception of those aforementioned big money scenes at the Apple offices, Kutcher never completely disappears to the extent Wyle did. You'd figure the actor would most excel portraying Jobs in his early hippie phase, but the biggest surprise is that doesn't end up being the case. What does hurt him (and the film) is the huge ten-year time leap that requires Kutcher to suddenly appear as the middle-aged, resurrected, black crew neck and jeans Jobs triumphantly returning to retake the reigns of his company and mentor designer and spiritual successor Jonathan Ive (Giles Mathey). The movie literally jumps forward an entire decade, skimming over his time spent running NeXT and the reconciliation with his daughter.
The biggest unanswered question is what flipped the switch in him, transforming an anti-social pariah into the visionary leader he's now remembered and respected as. Did age and experience just simply mellow him? We don't know, at least for now. But it makes things very difficult for Kutcher, who has to do much of the heavy lifting conveying that in the final act. I'd be lying if I said that it still wasn't fascinating to see him try. The trademark walk, the very succinct manner of speaking. His performance does turn into a series of tics and mannerisms, for the first time confirming our fears that the actor would be too charming and "cool" to play the notoriously cerebral Jobs. It's hard to say he necessarily digs deep, but harder to claim the material in this section even allows it. Still, it's the best performance Kutcher's given, and that he's successful at all, in the face of an admittedly enormous challenge, is relief enough in itself.
None of this was easy to pull off. Stern had a really tough job and delivered admirably considering the budget and looming shadow of a far larger, more anticipated Jobs film waiting in the wings. He also needed to cover an unwieldy span of time that runs all the way from Bob Dylan to Toad The Wet Sprocket. For an indie film about one of the most important and complex figures of our time directed by the guy who made Swing Vote, I'd say the end result not stinking is a small miracle. It does feel like a TV movie, but it's mostly well directed and shot, rarely coming off as cheap or exploitative, all while reaping the benefits of having a subject that makes a standard biopic rewatchable. In so far as its depiction of the man, it feels like the first part of a much larger conversation. But it's one definitely worth having.