A film review by Craig J. Koban August 27, 2013

JOBS jj
½ 

2013, PG-13, 122   mins.

 

Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs  /  Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak  /  Dermot Mulroney as Mike Markkula  /  Matthew Modine as John Sculley  /  Amanda Crew as Julie  /  Kevin Dunn as Gil Amelio  /  Lukas Haas as Daniel Kottke  /  J.K. Simmons as Arthur Rock  /  Lesley Ann Warren as Clara Jobs

Directed by Joshua Michael Stern  /  Written by Matt Whiteley

JOBS – the new biopic about the late Steve Jobs, who was, of course, an instrumental force in the personal home computer revolution and an unparalleled businessman and marketer – does a few things right in chronicling his iconic career, but it also makes a few categorical missteps along the way as well.  

On a positive, the film proficiently relays what a pioneering and visionary spirit Jobs was during an area when home PCs were often laughed at as a hopeless pipedream.  The film also rightfully never fully engages in outright hero worship; Jobs, if anything here, is shown as a narcissistic perfectionist that placed hellish demands on his workers to get what he wanted above all else.  Conversely, though, JOBS tries really hard to stuff a quarter of a century of history into a two-hour film, which results in an effort that feels padded, sometimes superficially executed, and never really digs too deeply into what made the Apple CEO tick. 

I will say this, though: Director Joshua Michael Stern (who made the underrated SWING VOTE) and writer Matt Whitley (who write the script at the same time Jobs took leave from Apple to battle pancreatic cancer) understands and relays to viewers that Jobs was indeed a genius for wanting to make personal computing both technologically functional and…well…sexy.  Jobs yearned to make computers that did what they were supposed to do, be accessible to a new generation of lay users that were not geeky software engineers that only new tech-ese, and, most importantly, he wanted people to aesthetically appreciate his products.  All of these lofty ambitions came at a hefty and burdensome price: Jobs’ mission to attain all of this led to him being a control-freak, a fanatical obsessive, and sometimes just a real ego-driven heel with his colleagues.  Jobs was not a kind man, per se, nor was he afraid of severely admonishing those that he felt were intellectually beneath him.  JOBS, on these levels, nails this aspect of the computer pioneer. 

 

 

The opening sections of the film are arguably the most fascinating, as we see Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) in 1974 as a barefoot bohemian-styled college dropout that’s bored by his post-secondary pursuits.  He does have an epiphany when he visits his buddy Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) one day, who is building what appears to be a very early home computer (essentially, a keyboard hooked up to a TV monitor…and not much else).  Wozniak just sees it as an idle hobby, but Jobs sees it as the lightning-in-a-bottle inception for a long master plan of making computers as common in the home as a toaster oven.  Using slick salesmanship skills, Jobs manages to convince a local retailer to buy fifty of Wozniak’s contraptions, and the film has great fun in showing how Jobs began his empire…in his parent’s garage. 

From there, Jobs gains the attention of an investor, Mike Markkula (Dermont Mulroney), and from there what we now know as Apple Computers begins to take form in the early 80’s.  Just when the company is starting to become a real force of nature, Jobs finds himself in very hot water with the Apple board of directors, who fail to share his vision of the future of Apple computers, which subsequently leads to Jobs’ termination in 1986.  A decade goes by and Apple finds itself struggling to be competitive again, which then leads to the company essentially begging Jobs to return to their fold.  Although begrudgingly at first, Jobs does return to the same corporation that so callously let him go, only to use his own brand of corporate and business savvy to help return Apple to the glory days of the company's youth.  The rest, alas, is well known history. 

Ashton Kutcher is an actor that, frankly, I did not hold much confidence in when I heard he was going to portray Jobs, but one of the surprising elements of the film is how he manages to create a pretty spot-on (physically, at least) likeness of the Apple guru during the 20 years of his life that the film spans.  It’s not a very showy performance, quite understated actually, but he does capture the subtle nuances of Jobs’ physicality (he’s got his distinctive walk down pat) as well as evoking a man of unending ambition and deep seeded pride that would not allow anything or anyone get in his way to achieve his goals of making computers stylish, user-friendly, and common-place.  Kutcher has never really been a performer of range that dials deep into his roles, but he nonetheless does a crafty and surprisingly competent job in immersing himself within Jobs' shoes. 

Again, JOBS is right at home with presenting the Apple co-founder’s well meaning, but bordering on insanity work ethic.  Money, deadlines, and time mattered little to Jobs; all that mattered was that his products worked flawlessly and looked uber cool at the same time, which is unavoidably why he butted heads with the nitpicky financial heads of Apple that were more about number crunching than pushing the limits of computing.  To be fair, Jobs did not invent the home computer (if anything, Wozniak was the first to really have the brains to figure it out), but Jobs had a manner of refining the ideas of others, reinterpreting it, and then trying to market it in ways that only he knew how.  He wanted to push the envelope in ways that no other computer company ever dreamed, but his own unending hubris, at least the film portrays, left him with very few actual friends.  It’s doubly ironic, but Jobs went to zealot-like extremes to make the world more interconnected, only to shut people out of his life in the process. 

Still, though, JOBS never fully emerges as a revelatory piece about the man’s career; there’s simply not much here that people did not already know or read about.  The film does understand that Jobs was a man of complexity and nagging contradictions, but the screenplay shows just the façade of these elements without really confronting and embellishing them.  Surprisingly, there’s virtually nothing in the way of portraying Jobs’ struggles with cancer – which cost him his life in October of 2011 – nor are there any probing insights into his own fractured life as a father/husband (we get snippets here and there, but not much else).  There were times while watching JOBS that I was reminded – and more positively - of THE SOCIAL NETWORK, another film about enterprising young men that caused a momentous change in the ways people used computers.  The problem with JOBS compared to David Fincher’s film is that it comes off as more superficial and by-the-books with its subject matter as a biopic. 

Yet, having said all that, JOBS at least portrays the frequently turtlenecked computer entrepreneur and businessman as a limitlessly determined, ruthlessly engaged, and sometimes aggressively anti-social man that really wanted to make home computers slick looking, appealing, and inviting.  It also shows us a time – really not all that long ago – before we had little computers in our pockets and when engineers were struggling to find a way to make the then-unheard-of and impossible-to-fathom home PC a reality…and amidst a lot of deep skepticism and doubt.  JOBS does show the sweeping technological, social, and cultural changes that his products have had in the last 25 years – something that’s perhaps taken for granted – but I just wished that the film was less of a best-of series of episodes from the tech sage’s life.  There’s just too much to simply say in one film about a man that fundamentally changed our world. 

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