Movie review: 'Jobs'

Sadly, the biggest problem with this biography of the great Information Age visionary is that it lacks vision.  There’s a lot of good stuff in “Jobs,” most definitely including Ashton Kutcher’s terrific portrayal of Steve Jobs.  Kutcher not only nails his character’s verbal and physical tics, but gets inside his head, making a dedicated effort to see the world as Jobs did.  There are moments when he really seems to be channeling the spirit of Steve Jobs, and it’s almost eerie.

Even so, Kutcher gets repeatedly upstaged by Josh Gad, who plays the more likable and understandable Steve Wozniak.  The Woz is a somewhat tragic figure here, resigned to play a supporting role in the life of the Great Visionary… right up until the moment he decides he no longer wishes to.  There’s a much bigger story behind Wozniak’s departure from Apple than this movie lets on; as scripted and filmed, it plays like Woz got tired of eating lunch alone, and decided to go find a bestie who would appreciate his friendship more.

Everything in “Jobs” happens abruptly, due to the unfortunate lack of vision that leaves its disconnected scenes floating around in search of a narrative.  It’s the opposite of the masterful way “The Social Network” spun bits and pieces of the Facebook saga into a compelling narrative about Mark Zuckerberg and the people in his life.  “Jobs” covers too much ground, jumps around too quickly, glosses over far too much, and ends too abruptly.  I heard people in my theater audience mutter “Whaaaat?” in annoyed confusion when the daughter Steve Jobs disowned as a baby abruptly turns up sleeping on his couch as a teenager, with the entire story of their reconciliation left to the audience’s imagination.

There’s very little of Jobs as a person in this story.  He’s an inscrutable icon, like the Apple corporate logo.  (One of the funnier exchanges in the film recreates the moment when Jobs decided on “Apple” as a name, discarding Wozniak’s hilariously geeky Star Trek-inspired suggestions.)  Jobs’ life before college is dismissed with a few lines of dialogue.  We never get a sense of how his vision and behavior took shape, so when he does disconcertingly nasty things, like dump his pregnant girlfriend or screw over the people who helped get Apple off the ground, it seems to come out of nowhere.  

“Jobs” doesn’t quite qualify as a hagiography, because it goes out of its way to show him acting like a self-centered, ruthless jerk, but that’s not quite the same thing as portraying a man in full.  The audience is left to suss out the irony of Jobs treating people in precisely the same way he hates to be treated.  As soon as he gets back from his (entirely off-camera) decade-long exile, after getting forced out of Apple through corporate skulduggery, he promptly sets about getting rid of Apple execs through corporate skulduggery, including the guy who thought it would be a good idea to have him back.  Better scripting and direction could have helped the audience savor the irony; as it stands, the film can scarcely be bothered to explain why Jobs decided those people had to go.  

The focus never pulls back far enough to give us a sense of how the rest of the computer and business world reacted to Jobs; Kutcher is in every scene, so we never see Steve Jobs through anyone else’s eyes.  The villains of the story, especially Apple CEO John Scully (nicely portrayed by Matthew Modine) come off as dunderheads whose moves make little sense in the moment, and were always disastrous mistakes in retrospect.  This is almost more a story about Apple than about Jobs, so it would have been nice to get inside Scully’s head for a while.

The evolution of the personal computer gets surprisingly abstract treatment here.  That’s too bad, because younger audience members would probably have been fascinated to get a closer look at such artifacts of PC history as the Apple II, the ill-fated Lisa, and the early Macintosh.  But that’s all kept rather abstract, perhaps out of fear that too much archaic technical jargon would alienate the audience.  Likewise, we don’t get much insight into the evolution of the iPod, the climactic achievement of the story, beyond a quick scene where Jobs decides that portable compact-disc players suck.  One way in which the jumpy, unfocused narrative does serve this movie well is when it comes to conveying the stunning pace of computer evolution through the Eighties.  It seems as though an epoch passed in only a handful of years.

Jobs begins his management career by yelling at naysayers to get the hell out of his company; when he returns as guru of the New Apple, he tells his worshipful young designers to always be honest with him.  It might therefore be said that his character arc involves learning that other people have visions worthy of respect and encouragement; even the boldest visionary profits from a dash of humility.  That might have been an interesting story to tell, but while it contains plenty of good scenes and some fine acting, “Jobs” just isn’t sure what story it wanted to tell.