There isn’t very much human about Jobs, Ashton Kutcher’s Steve Jobs biopic. It’s about Steve Jobs working more than it is about Steve Jobs’ work. And that’s probably about as unintentionally fitting a character portrait as you’ll find—just not always an entertaining one.
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There are a few arcs that a Steve Jobs biography could track. It could follow Jobs the man, Jobs the CEO, or Jobs the creator. Here, we get the CEO, and basically nothing else. It makes some sense as a narrative instrument—the decisions Jobs made throughout his worklife literally propelled him from one thing to the next, this scene to that. But the screenplay, writer Matt Whiteley’s first, takes that to an extreme. It’s formulaic in the way 1+1+1+1+1+1=MOVIE is a formula.
The first forty minutes or so of Jobs consist of a series of isolated scenes, one after the other, with no clear ties to each other. There’s the scene where we see Jobs taking a calligraphy course; one where we see he doesn’t work well with others; another where we find out he and Woz are friends; we learn that Steve is adopted in the first 10 or so awkward seconds of another scene that also has the first of six or seven (or more, depending on your definition) montages or montage-like moments in the film. One scene, one digestible fact, and on to the next point of trivia or godded up, contextless moment.
Around the 40-minute mark, once the movie slows down long enough to have a scene that lasts longer than two minutes, and to introduce a group of characters who interact with each other from one scene to the next, it finds a sweet spot. The scenes with J.K. Simmons as Chairman Arthur Rock and Dermot Mulroney as Mike Markkula (both excellent here, as is Ron Eldard in a smaller role as Rod Holt), when Apple’s board of directors begins questioning whether Jobs’ talent is worth how massive a pain in the ass he is, are the first time you get a sense that the characters you’re watching on screen are actually affecting the outcomes. They build real tension, so that when Steve goes around putting the band back together, even though it’s our fifth or so montage of the film, it’s the first that feels earned. Even if you’ve been sitting there like a sourpuss all film, you won’t help but cracking a smile while the Macintosh project is coming together.
That these moments of genuine creation are so fleeting is the movie’s biggest disappointment. Steve Jobs is fascinating mainly in the context of his work, and how the way he did his job shaped some of the most influential products of the past 50 years. We see a few glimpses of how those came into existence, but not nearly enough. Mostly we make do being shown how unrelentingly dickish Jobs could be. Kutcher squeezes some good moments out of that, and actually adds more realistic vulnerability to Jobs than you’d expect, but can’t really do much about the movie stepping on his toes, shoving him off to the next scene.
Oh, and the acting. Surprise! Ashton is actually quite good as Jobs when the movie lets him say anything that doesn’t sound like it was written explicitly for the trailer. He really does nail the mannerisms, and wardrobe throughout the film is spot on. An hour in, I realized that I’d stopped seeing Kelso, and just bought into Kutcher as Jobs. And then the script would feed him some soundbyte, on-the-nose line and things would fall back to earth.
And if that’s all it is, you have to ask, why would anyone want to watch that? A cynic might say that this movie is about a sociopath who systematically ruins his and others’ lives, and is rewarded lavishly for it. And that’s probably fair enough. The unfortunate part here is that while a psychotic dedication to work and nothing but is often a recipe for success in business, it isn’t a very fun way for a movie to go about its business.
The Social Network director Aaron Sorkin is also writing a movie about Steve Jobs — do you think it’ll fare better with the critics, or is crafting a film about the enigmatic iPhone-creator an impossible task?