Ashton Kutcher is Apple founder Steve Jobs in director Joshua Michael Stern’s Jobs, a standard-order biopic that focuses (mostly) on the early days of Apple through the company’s struggles in the mid-1980s. While there isn’t much depth to the proceedings – this isn’t the intimate portrait of the entrepreneur that the title implies – it’s nevertheless a generally engaging overview of his company’s beginnings.
One problem: Steve Jobs, as portrayed here, was a jerk. Screaming at employees, screwing over Apple’s co-founders, refusing to see or even acknowledge his baby daughter. His reaction to hearing the news that his girlfriend is pregnant is so over-the-top awful that it almost becomes laughable; people like this, we hope, don’t really exist (and become billionaires).
As if the actual story wasn’t bad enough, we also get random throwaways like a shot of Jobs parking in a handicapped spot (which, though accurate, has no connection to other events in the film). Now that’s just cold. The film goes so far out of its way to showcase Jobs in a negative light that it ends up alienating us from its lead character.
But we don’t have to like the man. Clearly, the inspiration here was The Social Network, which painted a similar portrait of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (the lead characterization isn’t the only similarity; structurally, Matt Whiteley’s script closely follows Aaron Sorkin’s work for the Fincher film).
And indeed, the first two-thirds of this film contain something of a satisfying arc. At the outset, Steve Jobs is a college dropout who stuck around campus to learn at his own pace. He uses women, drops acid, and travels to India with friend Daniel Kottke (Lukas Haas) in search of spiritual enlightenment.
He’s also something of a visionary, and he sees the future of personal computing in a hacked-together board-and-monitor setup that Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) has put together for fun. We take this so for granted that the film has a hard time explaining how revolutionary it was: we can hardly imagine a time when programmers couldn’t see a live output of what they were working on.
With Wozniak, and a small team including Kottke, Bill Fernandez (Victor Rasuk), Chris Espinosa (Eddie Hassell), and engineer Rod Holt (Ron Eldard), Apple begins making computers out of Jobs’ parents’ garage. With some start-up investment from Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), the Apple II personal computer is put into production, set to revolutionize the industry.
But while his ideas and business savvy did indeed revolutionize, Jobs’ personal shortcomings came back to bite him. By doing what’s right for the company, he mistreats his friends. He has trouble working with others. His projects are over-budget, and behind schedule; Apple’s board, chaired by Arthur Rock (J.K. Simmons) starts to lose faith in him. He clashes with CEO John Sculley (Matthew Modine), the man he hand-picked to come in and right the ship.
By the end, in 1985, Steve Jobs had burned all bridges at Apple, and was forced out of his own company. It serves him right, we think, and the lonely, lost man we see here is akin to the oblivious Mark Zuckerberg at the end of The Social Network.
But where The Social Network could end ambiguously, Jobs has the full story to tell, and oh, about 15 minutes to wrap everything up in a tidy package. Flash-forward 10 years and Jobs is married with children, and has even magically reconnected with the daughter he abandoned all those years ago. Apple is struggling, and brings him back as adviser and then CEO, where he fixes everything, bringing them back from near-bankruptcy to become the most valuable company in the world.
We know the story. The problem here is that it isn’t dramatically satisfying. We don’t want the Steve Jobs of this movie to win in the end. And if he became a better person and turned his life around after he left Apple, well, then that should be the story. But Jobs has no character arc here – he’s a jerk from beginning to end, where, with a snap of the fingers, he seems to have changed – and we have little interest in watching him succeed.
In the lead role, Kutcher is… an interesting choice. It’s a gimmicky, mimic-y role, with the actor’s hunched stature and awkward gait calling attention to itself in every other scene; we’re always aware that we’re watching Kutcher “playing” Jobs. The supporting cast fares better – Gad and Mulroney, especially, turn in some terrific work as people who, perhaps, knew the Apple founder the best over the years – and still couldn’t work with him.
A well-chosen soundtrack features period-era hits that include Cat Stevens’ Peace Train and Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather.
Jobs may not be fully satisfying in the end, but it’s still an engaging story of our times, well-acted and pieced together by director Stern (Swing Vote); despite a long-ish 130-minute runtime, it never loses our attention. Anyone interested in the story of the early days of Apple (and Microsoft, for good measure) should be sure to check out 1999’s superior Pirates of Silicon Valley.