It’s sometimes difficult to tell if Jobs, the much-ballyhooed and long-delayed biography of the late co-founder of Apple Computers, is one of the year’s worst movies so far, or a biopic so fearlessly aware of every pratfall its very genre sets it up to trip over – and that the film subsequently embraces – that its tedium and formal ineptitude transform the work into a nearly sublime kind of transcendence. At times it almost feels like a commentary on the making of the Biographical Motion Picture, an urban legend-style parable meant to warn filmmakers of every conceivable thing that could go wrong with their biopic, should they be eager enough to make one. How else does one justify the existence of a movie where virtually every goes as horribly wrong as this one does, while still maintaining enough good faith in the filmmakers to believe they made what they felt were the best choices for their movie, no matter how misguided?
Then again, perhaps such good faith would be misplaced; the only deficiencies more flagrant in Jobs than its laughable storytelling are its laziness and cynicism. So perhaps the folks who made this movie – director Joshua Michael Stern, writer Matt Whiteley and especially star Ashton Kutcher – deserve no such generosity. They spend two hours skimming through the life of Steve Jobs, from his days as a Reed College dropout cum tech-entrepreneur all the way through his firing from (and subsequent re-hiring to) the same company he helped innovate, with all the perspective of a high school research paper. Many of the particular snippets depicting the life of Steve Jobs exist not for the purposes of studying a dynamic, complicated screen character, but simply to show a bunch of scenes that serve only to mimic the superficial consensus that Steve Jobs was, like, a complicated dude who did, like, a lot of stuff. Instead of providing illumination on an already well-known series of biographical facts, all Jobs has to provide is regurgitation.
Take an early, painful scene where Jobs finds himself buttoned down in a tedious job at Atari. A particularly antagonistic outburst against his less-than-stimulating office colleagues – not to mention his boss Allan Alcorn – lands him a challenging assignment: to program what’s now the arcade game hit Breakout. Functionally, the scene is important because it foreshadows Jobs’ foibles, his workplace belligerence, and his burgeoning partnership with his eventual Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak (The Book of Mormon’s Josh Gad). Yet everything about scene’s drama feels wrong. Oh, so very wrong. From over-delivered fits of childish self-rhapsodizing by Kutcher to the under-written and incredulous exchanges between Jobs and Alcorn to even the scene’s very staging – Jobs and Alcorn are shouting at each other in the middle of the Atari office, yet not one peripheral employee seems to take notice – the entire scene feels comically inauthentic in the way it attempts to dole out the facts.
Jobs is rife with scenes like this, scenes that shoehorn hard facts into the narrative so that everybody talks to each other as if they know their words shall one day be transcribed verbatim into a historical textbook. When Jobs butts heads with Wozniak or some other colleague, it feels less like you’re witnessing verbal jousts between two Wikipedia articles, not flesh-and-blood individuals. When you see College Dropout Jobs having life-changing epiphanies while smoking a joint, you wonder why one of the 20th century’s most creative minds would experience trips reminiscent of the most hackneyed pseudo-Malickian sensibilities (in his defense, it was the seventies – maybe he caught Badlands right before sparking that doobie). When you see Jobs react to the news that he has knocked up his girlfriend… well, let’s just say I defy you not to laugh. So while many will draw inevitable comparisons to David Fincher’s much better true-story fictionalization The Social Network, this movie would be more appropriately compared to biographies like the Lifetime original movie parody A Dog Took My Face And Gave Me A Better Face To Change The World: The Celeste Cunningham Story.
If you were looking for a single element to blame for the Lisa-level debacle that is Jobs, you have to point to Kutcher’s woefully insufficient conception of the Apple Inc. co-founder. To be completely fair, it is not quite accurate to say Kutcher is fully to blame for how bad a movie character his Steve Jobs is; everybody involved in this movie puts a lot of faith in the ability of Kutcher’s acting to obscure Stern’s derivative visuals or Whiteley’s generic script (even the film score from inspirational melody drone John Debney sounds as if it were composed to accompany Kutcher’s march up to the Kodak Theater stage). Aside from the fact that even a great performance isn’t always capable of covering shoddy storytelling, Kutcher – while a solid comedic talent – lacks the fluid temperament to pull off a fully convincing Steve Jobs. He seems here to mistake “good” acting for “loud” acting, ensuring that his moments of anger are ANGRY! and that when tears flood his eyes, they are TEARFUL! Worst about Kutcher’s unmannered performance is how disconnected these emotions feel from each other, as if they do not even belong to the same person. Kutcher seems to be working from a laundry-list of broad traits that have been used by others to describe Steve Jobs – brilliant, impetuous, ambitious, instinctive – and simply plays those emotions as the script calls for them. There is no guiding principle driving Steve Jobs here, no real successful effort to convey his nuances, his contradictions, or any of the features that might give his life enough context to be meaningful. What’s completely missing here is perspective.
And it is that utter lack of perspective that makes Jobs one of the summer’s most tedious, cringe-worthy experiences, a biopic that is so biopic-y that I envision Walk the Line’s James Mangold and Ray’s Taylor Hackford dismissing the movie as “formulaic.” Steve Jobs was a fascinating individual, fascinating enough that even an acclaimed bestseller was written about him. But Jobs isn’t about that same person. Really, it’s not about anybody. Or anything.
Bottom Line: If you wish to honor the accomplishments of Steve Jobs in life, avoiding this appallingly bad biopic is a part of that process.