I'm not what you would really consider an Apple fanboy.
I have an iPhone and I'm typing this on a falling-apart MacBook – a Pro, like a hooker – but I don't really know much about Steve Jobs, the modern messiah of the pocket gadget age. I know the basic outline, of course, as does anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of pop culture, but I'm certainly not an obsessive. But what I do know about is movies, and after seeing the premiere of Jobs at the Sundance film festival I can definitively say this: it sucks.
Yes, Jobs is bad, even worse if you spell it as jOBS like Diet Mountain Dew spilled on your keyboard and the shift key got stuck forever. It starts off in 2001 with Ashton Kutcher – best known for being the replacement lead in reviled popularity Two and a Half Men and sitting in the second row at ideas conferences – walking down a hallway looking almost exactly like Steve Jobs: the mock turtleneck, the despicable dad jeans, the thinning hair, rimless glasses, and shoulders-first lumber are all exactly right. We expect that at the end of the hallway Jobs will emerge onto a simple black stage with a huge screen at the center to give one of his infamous keynote addresses that were so popular they crashed the servers of tech blogs large and small.
But he does not. He comes into a florescent lit ampitheater on the Apple campus, a theater that looks like the bridge of a star ship, to a round of applause. Do people clap when their boss walks into a room? Never. He then goes on to tell the company's top operatives and engineers about their latest innovation, a "tool for the heart", a description that is so cheesy it turned into a cat poster as soon as it left his mouth. Of course, it is the iPod, which he holds up in its shiny but clunky infancy, but we only see it from behind. (Maybe Apple has copyrighted its frontward appearance?) Everyone in the room stands on their feet and cheers, as if these people haven't been working on the device for years and have no clue what it is. Steve stands smug and smiles, having just explained what a gadget is to the room of the people who created and designed it. Say what?
The the biggest problem with the movie is that it doesn't necessarily present anything real or true, but it presents the sort of Steve Jobs that people want to see. This is one of several fake keynotes he gives in the movie – the others are at a computer fair when he first introduces the Apple II in the late 70s and when he presents his vision to save Apple in the early 90s. This isn't the Steve Jobs that really was or how things really went down, but it is the Jobs that his fans want to remember. The film engages in what entertainment journalists refer to as "fan service", throwing in facts, details, and little surprises that mainstream viewers won't recognize but will perk up those who placed an order for an iPad before the thing was even officially announced. There is a lot of talk about exactly which kind of processors and connections go into the computers, something as exciting to non-tech people as hairbrushes are to a bald man.
The script shoehorns in references to Jobs being a "fruititarian" and only eating fruit and nonsensically throws in a shot of him working a juicer to hammer the fact home. There are jokes about how Jobs never used to shower, and we see several of his notorious temper tantrums where he fires employees on the spot for not being down with his vision. Just like Jobs himself, the movie is obsessed with the details, but unlike one of Jobs' creations, the details don't add up to a spectacular whole; they just seem like a jumble of footnotes gleaned from his Wikipedia entry.
Kutcher has the same problem. As I said, he has the look down, but he never quite gets to the heart of the person. Along with Jobs' particular amble, Kutcher is also obsessed with placing the finger tips of both hands together when speaking, a gesture we see often in those public performances, but something that it doesn't seem like he would be doing while, for instance, breaking up with a girlfriend.
Kutcher is like a gas-soaked rag that never gets the spark to light on fire. That's as much due to his own talent (or lack thereof) as to the filmsy material he is given to work with. The few occasions his character has to weep (when his girlfriend tells him she's pregnant and he disavows the child) or rage (when going up against Apple's board) are like acting class versions of expressing emotion rather than something that is nuanced and genuine.
That might be because the script never reaches the heart of who Jobs really is. There are personal details, but they never fit together. Much is made of Jobs not wanting to acknowledge the existence of his daughter (there is even a eyeroll-worthy scene where his lawyer says: "I beg you, as a father, don't sign away your rights to visit her") and then suddenly, when the movie lurches forward in time, the daughter is sleeping in his house with no explanation of how or why he changed his mind. He also has a wife and another child whose presence are as inexplicable as raindrops on a sunny day. Why even bother showing his family life at all if it's not going to add any context or personality to the character?
In lieu of a glimpse into his soul, we get all the intrigue of what happened at the office. After his fake keynote at the beginning, we zoom back to Reed College in the 70s where Jobs goes through his hippie phase. We know he's a hippie because he refuses to wear shoes (unless they're Birkenstocks), drops acid, and parades through India with his friend Daniel Kottke (Lucas Haas, at his most ineffectively sullen). It's the sort of establishing montage with period music that every Lifetime movie uses to show how great someone's life is before they get hit by a car, betrayed by their husband or contract some exotic disease. There's also an inexplicable scene with James Woods where he tries to convince young Stevie to stay in school and become an engineer or artist. Oh silly James-Woods-character-that-is-never-explained-and-then-disappears-for-good, those tricks are for kids. Steve here is the messiah!
After that we move from one stage of his life to the next – creating Apple, going public, creating the Macintosh, being outed from the company, returning to the company – with more emphasis placed on when he decides to change his signature look (shaving his beard, wearing a suit and tie, donning his infamous black and denim uniform) than what goes on in his head. The one detail that it leaves out is his death. Even in the title cards at the end, it never once mentions Jobs' illness and eventual death. It seeks to do what we cannot: preserve him in all his glory forever.
The rest of the characters are serviceable, but there mainly around to spout explanation of what is happening and to explain to Jobs, as the treacly strings of the soundtrack soar, exactly what they're feeling at any given time. Josh Gad, best known from Book of Mormon on Broadway and the floundering NBC sitcom 1600 Penn, is possibly the best as Steve Wozniak. He gets the plum lines and seems to have the most real emotion of anyone in the movie.
Dermot Mulroney growls in a lush baritone as money man Mike Markkula, but he's only there to tell Jobs just how he has disappointed the board on any given day. When he betrays Jobs and votes him out of the company, the movie wants us to feel like he's some awful Judas, but since we're never made to care about the guy in the first place, the overly dramatic sound cues don't really do the job.
Former leading man Matthew Modine, as CEO John Sculley has the same sort of presence here as he did in last summer's Dark Night Rises, as sort of a dim functionary whose voice never rises to a roar. He tries to give his own fake keynote as Jobs scowls in the background, but then spends the rest of the movie sulking that everyone likes Steve better even though he's a jerk. This endeavor is never once critical of Jobs, even if it shows him being an asshole (mostly by always parking in the handicap spot, as if this inconsequence is the universal sign of complete jerkitude) it shows that everyone who opposes him is wrong and crass and the mastery of Jobs' vision will eradicate all of his personal shortcomings.
But there is no answering for the movie's shortcomings. At a Q&A after the screening, director Joshua Michael Stern (known for cinematic classic Swing Vote) and writer Matt Whiteley (this is his first project) told the audience that they weren't going for what happened in any given scene but for the subtext of the scene. They explain that Jobs never said, "Either get on board or get the fuck out," to an employee but that's what he meant. That's funny because this is a movie that has no subtext whatsoever. They also addressed the criticism Wozniak has leveled at the facts of the movie saying that they really got at what they "feel" is going on. No one cares about your feelings, they care about Steve Jobs! Stern also said, "I'm confident when [Woz] sees the film he'll like the portray of him." I wouldn't be so sure.
But according to Stern, we can't know everything about Jobs and trying to do it, well, is just meaningless. "You don't want to answer every question about a person. You can't create a fictional wound for someone that explains every event that happens in their life." That was obviously a dig at Aaron Sorkin, who pegged all of Mark Zuckerberg's drive to a breakup in college in The Social Network. Sorkin is also working on a rival Steve Jobs script. Knowing Sorkin, it will be one with plot development, astute characterization, a whole lot of talking, and probably just a smidgen of universal truth. There is none of that in this film.
For a movie that takes so much time bashing us over the head with the obvious notion that Steve Jobs loved innovation above all else, it offers absolutely nothing new either to film-making or his story. If Stern turned this product in at Apple, Jobs would have taken a big steaming dump on it and handed it back to him and no one would be able to tell what was the turd and what was the movie.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © Daniel Dudek-Corrigan