[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Jobs opens today in wide release.]
For a movie about a man who championed innovation, Joshua Michael Stern‘s Steve Jobs biopic, Jobs, is awfully safe and conventional. By the end of the movie, most viewers will know as much as they previously did about the tech innovator or possibly even less. Stern and screenwriter Matt Whiteley‘s depiction of Jobs makes one of the most influential figures in American business seem like nothing more like a savvy salesman who bullied people into following his vision. Ashton Kutcher‘s lead performance veers between convincing and distracting, and while Josh Gad impresses as Steve “Woz” Wozniak, Jobs is a bland biopic that never provides any insight into the man behind the Macintosh.
Playing by the standard rise-fall-redemption arc, Jobs begins by showing us Steve Jobs’ (Kutcher) presentation of the first iPod in 2001 before cutting back to his college years and showing us his spiritual, free-thinking origins. Although we see him expanding his mind in India, we quickly meet the bossy, demanding Jobs who worked at Atari in 1976 before teaming up with tech guru Woz (Gad) and eventually launching Apple Computers. From there, we basically know where the story goes because Jobs feels like a dramatization of a Wikipedia page.
Sometimes Stern and Whiteley give us even less as they never explain how Macintosh was different than the Lisa computer, and why the former was deemed less worthy of consideration by Apple’s board members. While Jobs gives us the major points in the Apple founder’s life, it provides almost no depth to his personality. With the exception of his time in India and a couple of other brief scenes, Jobs is depicted as either a demanding jerk who gives big speeches or a slightly tamer demanding jerk who gives big speeches. Business consumes his life, and his greatest hits of being a horrible person include ditching his pregnant girlfriend, swindling Woz on their first paycheck, and screwing loyal employees out of stock options.
Stern could deserve credit for showing Jobs warts-and-all, but the direction makes Jobs feel like a fake movie inside a real movie. It’s something that would be on a TV in the background or briefly seen when the main characters visit a theater. The film is complete with shots of dazed admiration and soaring music when Jobs is in his element by deploying Business Power or Leadership Skills. This phony glorification makes it seem like because Jobs was a great businessman, he was therefore a great human being worthy of the film’s lionization.
The movie never really humanizes Jobs, and when it tries to do so, Jobs comes off as unintentionally comical like when he angrily reacts to his girlfriend’s pregnancy by wrecking his bedroom, staring hard into his mirror, and tucking his shirt into his jeans. At a point like this, we start waiting for Star Wars‘ “Imperial March” to come blasting in as he moves towards his signature look. Ashton Kutcher is stuck in laughable scenes like this, and his transformation is hampered by the melodrama. At any point, Kutcher can make Jobs come to life and other times it seems like we’re watching an angry, serious Kelso from That 70s Show. Gad gives the movie its heart, but Woz’ relationship Jobs lacks any depth beyond the handsome guy using the nerdy guy, and the nerdy guy occasionally pleading with Jobs to have a shred of humanity.
Steve Jobs would probably be less-than-impressed with this biopic. It shares none of his values that made Apple the most valuable company in the world in September 2012. Stern makes his movie safe and comfortable, but this approach makes Jobs feel like a crass cash-in on Jobs’ recent death. The film never takes the time to understand what would make the story more than a recap and cursory overview of his life. The only major similarity between Jobs and Jobs’ work is that both products value simplicity.