Saturday, August 17, 2013

Jobs / *** (PG-13)

Steve Jobs: Ashton Kutcher
Mike Markkula: Dermot Mulroney
Steve Wozniak: Josh Gad
Daniel Kottke: Lucas Haas
Arthur Rock: J.K. Simmons
Bill Atkison: Nelson Franklin
John Sculley: Matthew Modine

Open Road Films presents a film directed by Joshua Michael Stern. Written by Matt Whiteley. Running time: 122 min. Rated PG-13 (for some drug content and brief strong language).

It’s easy to fail to notice just what an impact the work of Steve Jobs has had on our lives. I remember the Christmas when my parents got the family an Apple II computer. We were all so excited to have entered the computer age. We were just an average family. None of us had electronic inclinations. My dad wasn’t a tinkerer. My brother and I weren’t overtly obsessed with video games. But, to have an Apple II computer was sort of a status symbol signifying that a family had arrived in the modern age. At that time, no one knew of the innovations to come from Steve Jobs.

Today, the life and work of Steve Jobs is known about as widely as any of our country’s presidents. Perhaps more so. Everybody knows he started Apple Computers out of his parents’ garage. We all know of his friendship and business relationship with his early collaborator Steve Wozniak. We’ve seen and recently (thanks to YouTube) revisited again the famous marketing campaign for his revolutionary Macintosh computer. Many know he was fired from Apple after that product’s failure in the marketplace because of its heavy price tag. We know of his unprecedented return to the company he founded in the 90s and the revolutionary new designs he shepherded of the iMac computer and the device that altered the way all of us consume music and just about every other form of media, the iPod. The new movie “Jobs” is about all of these events, but most of all it is about the man whose obsession drove these milestones.

“Jobs” is a fairly in depth analysis of the man behind Apple, although there are many gaping holes in this tapestry. It would be fairly difficult for any filmmaker to give a full representation of this modern icon’s entire life and keep the movie down to a manageable running time. Director Joshua Michael Stern and screenwriter Matt Whiteley seem to have taken an angle of compete overview with particular focus on the psyche of Jobs himself.

The film opens in 2001 with Jobs’ introduction of the iPod to his staff in his now famous town meeting style of introducing new products. Then it flashes back to Jobs on the Reed College campus after he had already dropped out. He’s still dropping in on classes and co-eds, however. There a sense in the opening passages here that the filmmakers are ticking of Wikipedia points. His birthparents’ decision to give him up for adoption is mentioned in passing. James Woods is brought in for a cameo to explain Jobs’ college situation. He and his friends Daniel Kottke go to India. He does acid.

We never really get any sense of connection with other people in Jobs’ life. We know Daniel is his friend, but we don’t know why. We see his impossible co-working skills in a scene depicting his time as a programmer at Atari. He calls Steve Wozniak in to help him with a project. We aren’t told how the two men know each other, nor do we get much of a sense as to how they feel about each other. We do get a firm sense of how they feel about computers and the potential for innovation in that market. We meet a large cast of characters, including the girlfriend who would mother his daughter Lisa, his fellow Apple co-founders, Bill Fernandez, Wozniak, Kottke, and Rod Holt, but they aren’t very well developed. We have no sense of who these people are. I don’t think this concerns the filmmakers, who do create a solid impression of who Jobs is and what drives him.

The only real personal connection Jobs makes in this film and probably the most important person in terms of business is finally made with the introduction of Mike Markkula, who offers Apple their first investment plans and stayed on with Apple until Jobs returned as CEO in the 90s. Again there are no real personal lines drawn between these two characters, but their business dealings dominate most of the rest of the film’s story arc. Markkula oscillates between supporter of Jobs as an innovator in business and a conspirator against Jobs as his resulting products become less viable.

I’ll admit that when I heard of this particular production based on Jobs’ life—another film is in production at Sony Pictures and Funny or Die released their spoof version “iSteve” earlier this year—I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I thought Ashton Kutcher was great in the stoner role that made him a star on “That 70s Show”, but I never understood what he did as an actor to climb his way onto the A-List. I never saw anything from Kutcher that suggested he was worthy of that position in Hollywood. That being said, he does good work here. His Jobs is very introverted, very nuanced, and very convincing. I suppose it helps that he looks so much like the man.

Many will feel “Jobs” makes a good Cliff Notes version of Jobs’ life, but will find little more of value in it. Steve Wozniak has said that he fears this film will see Jobs as too much of an ignored genius and not responsible for the business fiasco that befell his company in the mid 80s. He’s right that the filmmakers place most of the blame on Apple’s board of directors and the involvement of John Sculley in shaping the face of Apple in the 80s. The movie doesn’t really pull any of its punches against Jobs, however, who is depicted as tyrannical and spiteful. It’s important to remember that Wozniak is a consultant on the Sony film, which he is bound to say is superior.

Despite its sometimes-didactic nature, I enjoyed “Jobs” as a biographical overview of a man who did so much to change our lives. What the film lacks in developmental details it makes up for in its focus on its central character. Kutcher is impressive playing a modern American icon, an often-difficult task for an actor playing someone with such a well-known public persona. “Jobs” is far from a perfect biopic. I would’ve liked to know more about the men that helped him build Apple, and would’ve liked to know more about his time away from Apple. The genius of Steve Jobs comes out in the film, however, with all of the anguish and frustration that is typical for the genius who is more man than God.

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