Jobs is an ambitious effort at a biopic, as it bravely attempts to capture the complex, idiosyncratic personality that was Apple’s visionary founder, Steve Jobs. Unfortunately, it falls short in its ambitions due to a script that is more like a collection of speeches than it is dialogue between characters, and to the actor at the center of the film, Ashton Kutcher.
The film primarily focuses on three main periods of Jobs’ life and relationship with Apple. The first period, 1971-77, saw Jobs dropping out of college, traveling to India seeking enlightenment, and of course teaming with engineer Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Josh Gad) to found Apple Computers. They then meet with financier and former Intel executive Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), who suggests they incorporate the company and provides the much-needed early support and capital to manufacture and market Apple’s groundbreaking personal computer, the Apple II.
The film then jumps to the most tumultuous years of Jobs’ multiple stints with Apple, from 1983-1985. Here, audiences get a glimpse of Jobs’ participation in the Apple Lisa and Macintosh projects, the company’s marketplace and legal battles with IBM and Microsoft in the nascent personal computer market, and Jobs’ own ouster from the Apple board after a power struggle with John Sculley (Matthew Modine), the marketing genius and former PepsiCo. CEO who Jobs personally recruited to be the CEO of Apple and return the company to profitability. The film’s final act showcases Jobs’ return to Apple in 1996, first as an adviser to then-CEO Gil Amelio brought in to help the company recover from the company’s financial decline, then later as interim CEO when Amelio is forced out in a manner similar to Jobs’ own exile from the company years earlier.
Give director Joshua Michael Stern (Swing Vote) and first-time screenwriter Matt Whiteley a lot of credit. Jobs’ complicated relationship with Apple, despite all the drama contained in its rise, decline, and resurgence, is not an easy story to dramatize, primarily because in order to give the tale any authenticity, the portrayal of Jobs himself must by definition be unflinching and unflattering.
Yes, Steve Jobs was a visionary innovator who fundamentally saw the world in a different way that enabled him to achieve the heights he’s best remembered for. But apparently he could be tremendously condescending and verbally abusive towards those who could not see the potential in technology that he did, which was just about everyone he came in close contact with. His exacting nature when it came to his work and the products that Apple produced and his inherent anathema towards working for anyone or having anyone else’s limitations imposed upon him made him a nightmare to work for and with, allegedly.
Thus, the character at the center of the story is often not a sympathetic one. So how do you tell the story of a man who had aspects to him that made him both feared and revered while still humanizing him and making him accessible to the audience, a character they can relate or connect to in some meaningful way? How do you make someone who in real life so few people truly understood understandable and relatable to a movie audience?
Stern and Whiteley’s solution is to spotlight moments where Jobs was at his best — talking up and inspiring his teams/disciples with bold words about the importance of the little things, the details, and of aesthetics in creation — and at his worst — yelling at colleagues who dared pose more practical and less artistic solutions to problems, pointing fingers at others in the boardroom for Apple’s financial struggles, and cheating or slighting those who regard him as a friend. What this amounts to is a series of scenes alternating between Kutcher delivering speeches and/or rants to rooms full of either reverent, worried, or bewildered faces. It’s an all-or-nothing strategy that relies entirely on how well Kutcher can transform himself into Jobs, and there, alas, lies the film’s fatal weakness.
It’s not that Kutcher doesn’t give the effort his all. You can see the commitment to the role and the amount of study and preparation he put into becoming Jobs in every scene, every facial twitch, every odd loping stride he takes into or out of a room. That and his physical resemblance to Jobs alone will make you want to buy in and believe. It’s an admirable effort from an actor who knows his cred as a dramatic performer, as something more than just a comedic presence, is on the line here.
But by the end, it’s clear he’s trying too hard; Kutcher never vanishes into the role, and you’re never really convinced that it is Jobs, rather than an actor playing the real person. Perhaps what makes it even more difficult for Kutcher here is that for so many of us, Jobs was a real, living person who lived in our lifetimes and whom we have our own memories of seeing. In comparison, Daniel Day Lewis might have had an easier time disappearing into and becoming Abraham Lincoln in last year’s Lincoln, because the man lived over a century and a half ago and no one living really knows exactly what his speech sounded like, or how he really walked and talked outside of what historians have told us. It’s not to take away from Day Lewis’s skill or the greatness that’s on display in his work in Lincoln, but certainly the fact that Lincoln’s so distant a figure in history played a small role in how readily audiences accepted what Day Lewis gave us. Kutcher has no such luxury, and few would argue he doesn’t have the skill of Day Lewis in terms of disappearing into roles, so the deck is stacked even further against him.
Surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast — Josh Gad really shines here as Woz, and J.K. Simmons is a welcome, familiar presence, though he plays a Jobs antagonist — and a production that does all it can to provide the film’s star with every opportunity to succeed, Jobs is a film you’ll really, really want to like and by the end feel a bit disappointed by. It’s a shame that the cast wasn’t given more to do other than simply react to Kutcher as Jobs – that might have made this more of an actual movie rather than a montage of Jobs quotable moments.
But perhaps that was a conscious choice to replicate what the real people around Steve Jobs, and the world at large, did in relation to the man during his life. He dreamed, he innovated, and he sold us on those innovations.
His world, and the rest of us, too, just reacted.
Score: 3 out of 5
Starring Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, Leslie Ann Warren, Ron Eldard, Ahna O’Reilly, John Getz, with James Woods and Matthew Modine. Directed by Joshua Michael Stern.
Running Time: 122 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some drug content and brief strong language.