Jobs (United States, 2013)

August 16, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Jobs Poster

Jobs could have been so much more but the desire to rush it into production and get it out fast (it started filming about six months after the ex-Apple CEO's death) has transformed it into a missed opportunity. A standard-order, scattershot bio-pic, Jobs offers a few nice moments and a surprisingly effective performance from Ashton Kutcher, but one gets no better sense of Steve Jobs here than could be gleaned from reading his Wikipedia article. The movie amounts to a series of vignettes that tell only parts of a fragmented story. Jobs has been decried by many of the characters' real-life counterparts as being grossly inaccurate. In the end, that doesn't matter anymore here than it did in The Social Network. The difference is that, while The Social Network was compelling and relevant, Jobs feels like the kind of production that used to be made for network TV (back in the days when network TV was still making movies).

Jobs makes the catastrophic mistake of trying to shoehorn more than 25 years (early '70s through 2000) into two hours. That almost never works. Perhaps writer Matt Whiteley and director Joshua Michael Stern would have been well-served by studying bio-pics that actually succeed. From Patton to Lincoln, it has been shown that the best way to bring a real-life figure to the screen is to depict a specific, limited period of his life. Cherry-picking incidents (both factual and fictional) rarely works since that approach often leads to a sense of events being rushed while the jumping around in time can be disconcerting. That's the case with Jobs. While we get a vague sense of what makes the character tick - his charisma and drive are constants - we're left with only a choppy understanding of the chronology of his life. Where, for example, did the wife and son come from? And how did his daughter by another woman end up sleeping on his couch? Unanswered questions like these plague the movie, making one wonder whether a longer, more coherent cut of Jobs exists.

The much-maligned Ashton Kutcher deserves credit for taking the time and effort to study his subject. Not only does he look like Steve Jobs, but he has perfected the walk and mannerisms. Some might argue that this is more an act of mimicry than a well-honed performance but, whatever the case, it's effective. Kutcher disappears into the character, which is a key qualification in any bio-pic. (He isn't required to portray the post-cancer Jobs. The movie's chronology ends with a single scene set around the turn of the century. The cancer wasn't discovered until 2003.)

Jobs starts sluggishly and the early scenes lack focus as we're introduced to a teenage version of the man while at Reed College. With his best friend of the time, Daniel Kottke (Lukas Haas), he drops acid, talks pretentiously, and visits India. When he returns, he forms a partnership with electronics wunderkind Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) and begins to make computers. Apple is born in Steve's parents' garage and, with the capital provided by investor Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), quickly expands into a major force in the fledgling industry. By 1984, Jobs finds himself in trouble with Apple's board of directors and, by the end of 1986, he's out. Ten years later, Apple comes begging for Jobs' return. More politically savvy and understanding of corporate politics, he puts aside old grudges and comes back, transforming a financially struggling company into the Goliath it is today.

Jobs isn't a complete miss. In fact, while its portrait of the title character's life is frustratingly incomplete, it provides reminders of how the home computer revolution changed everyday American lifestyles. Twenty years was all it took for the concept of a computer in the house to develop from a curiosity to a necessity. Jobs also offers the possibly unintentional thesis that, without Steve at the helm, Apple may be headed for a fall. Although not an engineer, Jobs had a vision and worked tirelessly to innovate. He was never happy with just making a better product; he wanted something different. The implication advanced by Jobs is that, without Steve, Apple will become just another computer company and that the string of "next great gadgets" that characterized its business plan during the second Jobs era (1996-2011) may no longer be able to move forward.

Another question that needs to be asked is whether Jobs' life is worthy of a cinematic telling. There's no debating his importance to computing during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, but how much of a story is there? The film is at its best when it shows Jobs at work - whether in the garage with Wozniak or in a lab working on the first iteration of the Macintosh. His political battles with the Apple board and his betrayal by CEO Jack Scully (Matthew Modine) are too broadly painted to gain traction. Great men don't always have great lives and part of the problem with Jobs could be that simple fact. Either that or the movie doesn't figure out how to portray the greatness. "Compelling" is a word one could apply to Jobs - he was a magnetic figure - but it doesn't describe this movie. "Average" might even be a stretch, and that's something of an insult to the man whose story it tells.

Jobs (United States, 2013)

Director: Joshua Michael Stern
Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, Matthew Modine, J.K. Simmons
Screenplay: Matt Whiteley
Cinematography: Russell Carpenter
Music: John Debney
U.S. Distributor: Open Road Films
Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 2013-08-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1