Jobs — a movie by Joshua Michael Stern
Jobs, Joshua Michael Stern’s biopic of Apple founder Steve Jobs, is easily measured. Its depth requires but a thimble. Its texture is tantamount to tissue paper’s. Its intensity can be calculated in ounces. Its sensibility is miniscule. Its wit is emaciated. Its acting can be eclipsed on most high school stages. Its storytelling is on a level with Dick and Jane, and I really hate having to insult a work as classic and seminal as Dick and Jane with the comparison.
Stern’s movie is so juvenile and so amateurishly made, I believe I could claim a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the number of times I rolled my eyes and muttered, “Oh, brother!” at a line or an allegedly dramatic sequence. The plethora of shots in which Stern had his lead performer, Ashton Kutcher, emphasize Jobs’s fast, forward-leaning lope were enough for me to concentrate on stifling giggles rather than continuing to laugh alone to what must have been the wonder of my fellow moviegoers. Lord knows I needed a Guinness or four after leaving the theater.
Jobs, which covers Jobs’s life from the time he offended people on college campuses with his aloofness and body odor to the day he bounced into an Apple auditorium to introduce the iPod, is watchable. It flits along breezily enough. From the beginning, though, you can see Stern is going to take the easiest and most simplistic route. The director doesn’t know how to pace the highs and lows of his film. He makes a mistake that is coming all too common is all forms of dramatic entertainment, he believes that telling a fact or presenting an event blandly is the same as involving the audience in the various passages of a lead character’s life. Victories and crises, monumental breakthroughs and crushing setbacks are all depicted in the same tone and the same easy rhythm. That tone is jaunty, but it doesn’t allow for variation. It keeps everything on its plainest, what-you-see -is-what-you-get level, and a movie has to provide more emotion than that. It needs to makes its audience concerned and in suspense during crucial moments and make that same audience elated when the character of primary interest triumphs.
Steve Jobs had a lot of triumphs. Several of them changed our daily lives as much as any individual’s achievements during the last 30 years. The iPod and iPad alone have made a wide world accessible and available at their user’s whim.
People want to know about the man who brought these things into being. Audiences want to share his inspirations and his dilemmas. They want to suffer, gloat, steam, and exhilarate with the lead character. Stern does not give them the chance. The only element he provides that can be measured by the gross is superficiality. While that simple approach makes the movie sail by, it also prevents it from being engrossing or satisfying.
Stern and screenwriter Matt Whiteley keep everything at its most basic level. You follow Jobs on a long course. You see what a smart-aleck he is, how much he eschews formal education, how difficult he can be, how steadfastly he can deny anything he doesn’t want tied to him (including a child he fathers), and how brilliant he is at recognizing both the desires of a consuming public and the products and systems that would give that public what it wants.
All of that is in Jobs along with that walk that makes Jobs look as if he is the third ape from the right on a chart depicting human evolution.
I can’t vouch for how accurate Stern and Whiteley are. Jobs’s partner in forming Apple, the other Steve, Steve Wozniak, has reportedly said Stern’s film does show things as they happened. I don’t even care how accurate it is. The main events in Jobs’s life seem complete, and if Stern does not present his material elegantly or by employing the basic storytelling rudiments of heft and impact, he seems intent on telling you everything about Jobs up until the time he began feeling ill.
Jobs’s story is of interest. Stern and Whiteley fulfill their attempt to show the steps that led to the iPad and all of those glittery Apple stores that dress up Main Streets and malls alike. They just do it in such a flat, nonchalant, here’s-what-happens-next way, the audience has no chance to become absorbed, let alone sympathetic or worried about the focal character’s fate. Hero or crank, sage or failure, it’s all one to Stern and Whiteley. They seem to think that a tantrum here and there, or some footage of Kutcher shaking his head and shouting to heavens as if he’s enduring a challenging temptation of Christ, is enough to provide drama or give their character, Jobs, facets that let you see and appreciate him as a total man with virtues and vices and with genius and tunnel vision at once.
Ashton Kutcher doesn’t add anything to the director’s portrait of Jobs. Except for those sequences when he gets to gnash and bellow, he plays all his scenes on the surface. You never see anything in his face or his bearing that won’t be practiced in an Acting 101 class. Kutcher’s Jobs is as neuter as the film that depicts him. Even scenes of frustration, rage, or seeming nervous breakdown are played with a maximum of cliché and a minimum of effort.
Unlike some actors who have proven their mettle by taking a large role and playing it with nuance and wit, Kutcher disappoints by wasting this opportunity to show some depth as an actor. He floats along on the flimsy emotion of the moment and doesn’t come close to conveying the genius or disdain for others that sets Jobs apart and sets him up to be the one who will forge technological advances that revolutionize 21st century existence.
Josh Gad, of Book of Mormon fame, is more agile and animated as Wozniak. Gad bothers to create a character and puts some texture behind his lines. Whiteley deserves some credit for writing a snarky or clever line here and there. Jobs earns some legitimate laughs. Gad just does more with the material than Kutcher and the bulk of his colleagues.
Stern recruited a lot of veteran actors for his cast, but Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Modine, Ron Eldard, or James Woods are not capable of lifting Jobs beyond superficiality. Lukas Haas, as a once-close friend of Jobs who is shunted to the sidelines, makes an attempt to give some weight to his character, Daniel Kottke, but that character appears at irregular intervals throughout the film, and Haas’s decision to act makes him seem awkward and his character weird in the face of all the histrionic laziness in Jobs. Only the ubiquitous J.K. Simmons manages to give his character, an early chair of Apple’s board of directors, some personality, a pretty heady feat considering Simmons is saddled with the same obvious, textureless material as his castmates.