Editor’s note: Kate’s review originally ran during this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but we’re re-running it as the film opens in limited theatrical release this weekend.
Apple founder and technology visionary Steve Jobs changed the way the world connects and computes, created one of the world’s most revolutionary companies and recently died, so of course he is now being remembered by way of an unsatisfying biopic that could have been far more creative and inspired than the final product. Director Joshua Michael Stern (best remembered for the completely forgettable Swing Vote) works off a script by newbie scribe Matt Whiteley (a former marketing wonk who was commissioned to write the script by his boss, producer Mark Hulme) that, while well-paced and interesting, also fails to illuminate much about the man and skips over large chunks of his life. As Jobs, Ashton Kutcher does a fine job (sorry, had to do it) with his role, though when Jobs amps up its intensity, he can’t quite keep his character compelling or believable.
It’s obvious from the film’s first five minutes what sort of biopic this is going to be, thanks to a score that can only be described as soaring, triumphant, and totally paint-by-the-numbers. Composer John Debney (who has one of the most prolific and varied resumes that you will see in Hollywood) lays it on so thick and so quickly that audiences should not be surprised in the least when his score, which seems positively engineered to make you think “oh, yes, something triumphant is happening now!” continues to grate and manipulate throughout the entire film. It may be ham-fisted and over-the-top, and you may be well-aware of just what that score is trying to do to you, but damn if it doesn’t hit you exactly where it should.
Jobs opens with the introduction of the iPod in 2001, a tremendous high point for both Jobs and Apple. The film then zings back in time to 1974, with college dropout Jobs still bumming around Reed College when he’s not actually dropping out (we mean drugs), before continuing on linearly until the creation of the game-changing iMac. Jobs is, for the most part, a surprisingly straightforward biopic, hitting most of the major milestones in Jobs’s life, clipping along so quickly that it entertains far more than it educates.
The film doesn’t gloss over some of the more despicable aspects of Jobs the man, showing us such upsetting and unmotivated sequences as Jobs screwing his partner Steve Wozniak (impressively played by a restrained Josh Gad) out of a big paycheck before they even really go into business together, Jobs kicking his pregnant girlfriend out of his house, Jobs refusing to grant stock options to his first batch of employees (all of whom still worked at the company when it went public), and many, many more. Jobs doesn’t hide that Jobs seemed like, frankly, a really big asshole for a large portion of his professional career, but it also frames up his better moments in such a triumphant manner that the film still manages to feel quite unobjective when it comes to its subject.
Kutcher is perfectly serviceable as Jobs, but he’s truly at his best when he’s able to relax into the part – not when he’s a teary Jobs (which happens surprisingly often), a screaming Jobs (which happens even more often), or a strutting Jobs (Kutcher clearly studied Jobs’s walk, and studied it way too much). The rest of the film’s supporting star-studded cast pull their weight, and their work elevates an otherwise mediocre film.
Stern relies far too heavily on montages, as the film features at least five bloated instances explaining important moments of inspiration, creativity, and the progression of relationships. Whiteley’s script also comes with some real bangers, however, with exposition and character insight delivered by way of such hammy lines as “Are you talking about your birth parents?” and “I’ve changed” to illustrate basic background and evolution that should be shown in far more organic and interesting ways. Jobs is very much a film that tells, not shows, what is going and how it’s going on and what’s important, perhaps the worst sin any biopic can commit. Sadly, Jobs is in no way committed to innovation or creativity, a true shame considering its subject matter.
The Upside: An often-solid performance by Kutcher; a very solid series of supporting performances (particularly by Gad); surprisingly well-paced and quite entertaining.
The Downside: Relies on basic and unimaginative filmmaking tricks, particularly a score calibrated to make audiences think “something triumphant and bold is happening!” and long-winded montage sequences; “tells” rather than “shows” large swathes of character development and exposition; leaves many unanswered questions (you know, like, why computers?).
On the Side: Though there’s been some debate over the background of the name of Apple’s failed “Lisa” computer, Jobs maintained years later that it was, in fact, named after his daughter.