Jobs is a pure representation of how difficult it is to make a good biopic. The film traces the life of Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) from his time at Reed College all the way to his return as Apple CEO in 1997. Along the way it touches on the founding of Apple with Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad), his paternity denial, several project failures, including The Lisa, his time in India, and his ousting from Apple. And that is the biggest problem with the film. There is no connective tissue between these events, other than they all happened to Jobs, and thus there is no real story here, since there isn’t enough time to truly examine any of the chapters presented in the film.
Another central problem is that the real Steve Jobs has passed into myth, but the film wants to portray him as a flawed human being. It is really hard to do both. Patton succeeds because it embraces the general’s legendary status and narrows its focus to his World War II exploits. By contrast, Lincoln succeeds at portraying its subject as human by reducing the scale to the man, his family, and a few key colleagues, allowing us to see him through their eyes. While those people were sometimes in awe of Abraham Lincoln, we are able to glimpse many other aspects of his personality.
Jobs opts to try and do both, fueling the mythology of the founding of Apple, the Macintosh project, and Jobs’ return to Apple while fully embracing Jobs’ failures, both personally and professionally. An admirable goal, but readers of Walter Isaacson’s book will likely agree that Jobs is an enigmatic figure, his interior life largely unknowable. By not giving us a character to see Jobs through, it exacerbates the lack of connective tissue. This film isn’t a narrative so much as reenacting scenes from the man’s Wikipedia page.
There is a hit parade of character actors who pop up throughout the film, from J.K. Simmons and Matthew Modine to James Woods and David Denman, but Woods and Dunham, for example, show up for less than 5 minutes of screentime. This only reinforces the feeling of vignettes only connected by chronology as people come in and out of Jobs’ life. There are also strange omissions, like Jobs’ relationship with his wife, Laurene Powell. She is merely present after a montage showing Jobs’ time at NeXT.
When the film does work, it’s because of Josh Gad’s take on Wozniak. Sadly, he is not in the film enough to be that throughline (he’s never connected to anything concerning Job’s family life, and leaves before Jobs’ greatest successes and failures), but a better version of this film would have centered on the two men, their partnership, and their drifitng apart. The scenes of them assembling the boards of the first Apple Computer are excellent, but Jobs never lingers on anything long enough for us to get to know these people.
While I was worried about Ashton Kutcher in the starring role, he does a competant job, but is hindered by some clunky writing and an over reliance on speechifying. The film is constantly telling us Jobs’ vision, drive, and brilliance, but we never really see much of it in action beyond recognizing the ideas of Wozniak and Jonathan Ive (Giles Matthey). Does the film insuinate that Jobs’ genius was seeing the potential in other people’s ideas? Maybe, but it goes by so fast it hardly feels like a point.
I also imagine that non-tech people less familiar with Jobs’ life pre-iPod will be a little lost, since little context is given beyond the creation of the Apple II. The Lisa, the Macintosh, the “1984” commercial, and others are glimpsed, but never explained. At best, this film feels perfunctory, especially since it covers much of the same ground as The Pirates of Silicon Valley, the 1999 TV movie where Noah Wylie portrayed Jobs.
Jobs feels like a rushed product, and while the life of Steve Jobs felt so cinematic even in his lifetime, you get the sense that no one stopped to think about what story their movie was telling. The shotgun approach rarely works well, and I walked away feeling unsatisfied and disappointed. This isn’t what Ashton/Steve promised.
Jobs opens today in Philly area theaters.