It's now been nearly two years since the sudden passing of Steve Jobs, and not surprisingly Hollywood has been quick to bring his story to life on the big screen. Aaron Sorkin has a biopic that will likely cause quite a stir if the past tells us anything, but coming out of the gate first is Jobs, which up to this point is best known for the unusual casting of Ashton Kutcher in the title role. While many have been quick to write it off as a circus gimmick, casting the guy from That 70s Show to play such an important figure, they may be surprised to learn that the portrayal of Jobs is one of the few things the film gets exactly right.
Directed by Joshua Michael Stern, who gave us the political fairy tale Swing Vote, Jobs is a similarly insubstantial look at a life that touched millions. It's certainly informative in a TV biopic sort of way, and entertaining on that scale, but as a comprehensive look at what made Steve Jobs tick it barely scratches the surface. It paints him as a driven and very complex man, given to acts of sincere generosity and intense selfishness. He could be the greatest friend one second and a bitter rival the next, but a fear of letting others get too close plagued him. Rather than a start-to-finish chronicling of his career, the film focuses on a very specific and eventful period. When we meet him it's 2001, just as he's introducing the revolutionary IPOD to the world. Flashback to 1971 and he's a college dropout/campus Yoda balking at the education system, taking LSD and scoring with tons of hot co-eds. His rebellious spirit leads to a quick exit from Atari, but soon he'll be taking his eye for ingenuity and building the fledgling Apple Computers out of his garage. If he was the visionary, who figured it would be brilliant to combine a TV with a typewriter to make the first PC, it's his nerdy, soldering pro Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) who is the brains. "Woz" also serves as a voice of reason and a confidant when Jobs' more cutthroat tendencies begin to emerge, and the pressures of success take their toll.
The script by Matt Whiteley superficially, and frustratingly skates over Jobs' complex personal life and attitude towards those closest to him. Far from portrayed as a saint, he's pretty easy to despise after dumping his girlfriend when she becomes pregnant. He would spend most of his life never acknowledging his daughter, yet name one of his personal pet projects "Lisa" after her. Those interesting contradictions are never explored, and while it's understandable because Jobs was a cypher to nearly everyone who knew him, the lack of insight into every aspect of his life becomes a frequent disappointment.
Jobs' innovative spirit and tunnel-vision for excellence are where the film occasionally soars, and we see him step over his friends and bully his employees to stay one step ahead of the competitors. The office politics and boardroom battles, leading to his departure from Apple and the company's near demise, are bland compared to the tech firm's rise to fame. There's very little dramatic tension because Jobs' only real competition is with himself. We barely hear the words Bill Gates, and when we do they're shouted during an angry outburst that could have been the start of an intriguing war for tech supremacy. Instead we get Matthew Modine in a flat turn as CEO John Scully, who helped push for Jobs' ouster, and Dylan McDermott is solid but underused as investor Mike Markkula.
It may be a fairly low bar given his usual output, but Kutcher does some truly inspired work as Jobs, and it's clear that he studied the man extensively, nailing his voice, hunched-over gait and bouncy step better than one would expect. The performance becomes less natural when Kutcher is called upon to capture the man's angry tirades, but overall he comes off as natural rather than trying to force something that isn't there.
Jobs serves as a decent appetizer to the history of Apple and Steve Jobs, but it isn't illuminating enough to be truly satisfying. By refusing to take more narrative risks and exploring Jobs more fully, the film shows a lack of ingenuity that the legendary tech giant would have scorned.