Since his death in 2011, Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple Computers Inc., has been canonized as an entrepreneurial icon. Apple products are ubiquitous, and the company — until last week’s reported drop in earnings, anyway — was rated as the world’s most valuable.
It therefore seemed inevitable that, following the publication of his best-selling biography shortly after his death, Jobs would become the subject of a movie.But last week the first of two movie projects, entitled jOBS, an uninspired, hagiographic look at the man who changed the way we view computers, landed with a thud at Sundance.
It opens in 2001 with Ashton Kutcher, as Jobs, unveiling the iPod.With thinning hair, four-day’s growth on his chin and a loping gait, he takes the stage before a rapt crowd of Apple acolytes. As John Debney’s painfully overwrought score swells to a crescendo, Jobs, who we see only in snippets, holds up his state-of-the-art portable media player and proclaims, “Ladies and gentleman, I give you the iPod!” as if he’s found the cure for cancer.
The scene sets the tone for the rest of the film, assuring us that though he had his flaws, Steve Jobs was a genius of superhuman proportions.
Flashback to Reed College, 1972, where Jobs, a brash young student, drops acid, drops out, heads to India, searches his soul, and finally returns home to a job at the fledgling video game company, Atari where he is admonished for being an obnoxious jerk. But as the film would have it, sometimes being a jerk is compulsory if you’re out to change the world. Of course, Jobs didn’t change the world. He didn’t invent the cell phone nor the PC, only made them more usable… and more expensive.
Enlisting the help of his friend Steve Wozniak (who did invent the PC), Jobs successfully modifies Breakout, a video game, for which he is paid $5000, but tells Wozniak the deal was for $700, which they split, with Jobs pocketing the balance.
Instances like this show a darker side of Jobs, but throughout the movie we are only given glimpses of his selfish, nearly sociopathic behavior, double-crossing most everyone in his path. Instead, director Joshua Michael Stern (Swing Vote) and first-time writer Matt Whiteley choose a different approach, focusing on their subject’s (yawn) relentless pursuit of perfection.
Recruiting a team of technicians, led by Wozniak, they begin working out of Jobs’ parents’ garage (shot on the actual Los Altos location) assembling circuit boards and laying the groundwork for what will become the first PC.At this point, the movie settles into a timeline of Apple Inc. – the political infighting surrounding the Apple Lisa, (an early PC that failed to the tune of millions), the launch of Apple I and II, and the board’s battle with and ultimate victory over Jobs, who was ousted in 1985 only to be reinstated as CEO in 1996. As such, jOBS feels more like a chronological checklist, lacking emotional content in favor of “facts” — most of which are readily available on the internet, and seldom more in depth or revelatory.
The model for jOBS is Citizen Kane or, more recently, The Social Network, in that each focuses on real-life, hard-driving entrepreneurs who alienate those around them as they build their empires. But Citizen Kane is not about publishing, and The Social Network is not about the internet. Instead, each focuses on character and the curse of isolation that sometimes accompanies vaulting ambition. But jOBS is so impressed with its subject that it leaves precious little time to explore the imperfect man behind the icon.
Some might consider Ashton Kutcher, not known for his personal gravity, a bold casting choice. But his presence here is a miscalculation. His performance isn’t the disaster you might expect, but despite some physical similarities and a dead-on loping gait, Kutcher has a boyish quality unbefitting the role.
He enjoys a natural rapport with Josh Gad (1600 Penn), a versatile entertainer who brings pathos to his role of neglected genius, Wozniak. But with material as meager as Whiteley’s screenplay, Gad’s performance is mainly characterized by horrendous hair and bad suits.
Dermot Mulroney embodies an efficient Mike Markkula, an entrepreneur who backs Jobs and the boys early on, later becoming his right-hand man as Apple’s stock rises.
Matthew Modine, as marketing wiz John Scully, does yeoman’s work with the script’s wafer-thin characterization. And J.K. Simmons, in a ridiculous wig, is adequately rigid as Apple board member Arthur Rock. But no diamond sparkles in the dark, and no matter how talented jOBS’ cast is, without adequate material it cannot shine.
An epic figure defined by the digital revolution, Steve Jobs makes a compelling subject for a film. Oscar-winning writer of The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin revealed recently he’s working on a unorthodox screenplay about Jobs consisting of only three scenes surrounding the launch of three different products. It sounds unique and daring — and it could be a disaster. But however it turns out, it’ll probably be better than jOBS.