I’ll give “Jobs” credit for one thing: It’s better than I expected it to be, both after the near-universal negative reviews that came out of its festival showings, and after the guffaws that emitted from myself and most others when we heard the idea that Ashton Kutcher was playing Steve Jobs in a movie.
Still, “Jobs” is a rather inert biopic that checks off all the boxes of the Steve Jobs story and is entertaining at times, but provides little new insight and has just about nothing to say about its subject.
The movie, written by Matt Whiteley and directed by Joshua Michael Stern, covers Jobs’ life beginning with his college years, through Apple’s garage days, the company’s early success, Jobs’ feud with CEO John Sculley, his departure and eventual return, ending with the introduction of the iMac in 1998. There’s a flash forward at the beginning to the iPod introduction in 2001, but the film concludes before we see the iPhone, iPad, Apple stores or Jobs’ illness and death.
If you have more than passing familiarity with Apple history, this movie feels an awful lot like marking time- it hits all the important beats, without really expanding or shedding any new light on the subject. It also spends very small amounts of time on important things, as if the filmmakers wanted to make sure to touch on certain topics without actually devoting any real time to a couple of minutes to it.
Apple’s entire feud with Microsoft is reduced to 15 seconds of Jobs leaving an angry voicemail. His falling out with John Sculley takes place over the course of a montage that lasts less than a minute. And Jobs’ departure from Apple and return a decade later is stripped of impact, as the movie flashes directly from one to the other.
That’s the problem with the Jobs life story- there’s so much to it that the filmmakers might have been better served either by focusing on a specific time period- the garage days, perhaps, which are by far the best part of the movie. Either that, or make it an all-encompassing ten-hour miniseries or something.
It’s hard not compare this Jobs story to his eponymous, authorized biography, written by Walter Isaacson and published shortly after Jobs’ 2011 death. I got the impression from that book that Jobs- a man I had always admired- was at best a moody asshole and at worst a full-on sociopath, a man who treated those around him with uncommon cruelty. The key theme of that book was one of the duality between Jobs’ world-changing creative genius, and his repellant, vicious personality.
The movie doesn’t know what to do with that theme. And despite a handful of scenes in which Jobs yells at employees, parks in handicapped spaces, screws Steve Wozniak out of money, or refuses to acknowledge his daughter, it tones his nastiness way, way down.
Kutcher is actually surprisingly decent in the role of Jobs. He has the speaking voice exactly right, as well as the mannerisms, including the way Jobs walked. The 35-year-old Kutcher also plays the part as Jobs ages from his teens into his forties, although he looks mostly the same throughout, save for changes in clothes, facial hair and glasses.
Josh Gad is also excellent as cofounder Woz; as he prepares to play Sam Kinison in a biopic, I’m glad to see Gad’s career taking this turn, rather than towards “funny fat sidekick” parts (though I suppose Wozniak was exactly that.) The whole group playing the original Apple crew is dead on, as is Matthew Modine, who it’s hard to believe is now old enough to play Sculley.
However, we get the sense that a whole bunch of actors had their parts cut down to almost nothing, with multiple recognizable actors- Lesley Ann Warren, Samm Levine- reduced to almost non-speaking roles. James Woods, for some reason, is in the movie for about 10 seconds as a college professor.
Another big weakness? Laughably on-the-nose musical cues. The soundtrack is a best-of album of ’70s classics, very heavy on the Cat Stevens, unless there’s a song lyric right in the title- “Roll With the Changes,” “Life’s Been Good”- meant to convey the exact mood of that moment of the movie.
The success of “The Social Network,” I suppose, means we’re going to get a biopic/origin story about every major tech company, but unlike the Facebook movie, “Jobs” doesn’t really teach us anything about Steve Jobs or Apple that we didn’t already know. “The Social Network” writer Aaron Sorkin is said to be working on another Jobs movie, based on the Isaacson book, so perhaps he’ll do it better.