It’s highly unlikely that Joshua Michael Stern’s film about the founder and guiding force behind Apple will attract the massive hordes of impatient customers who throng the company’s stores whenever it introduces some new technological marvel. Although it’s a sincere effort to delve into the man’s personality while doing justice to his influence on the digital world, “Jobs” is ultimately a pedestrian work that exhibits none of the imagination and daring its subject was famous for.
Matt Whiteley’s script largely ignores the last fifteen years of Jobs’ life, content to open with one of his last presentations to his devoted staff and glide over his leadership of Apple, and his domestic affairs, after 1996. Its focus is on the period from 1973 to 1996, from Jobs’ decision to drop out of Reed College after just a few months to his retaking control of the company after a decade’s exile. It concentrates on how as a young man he and a cluster of friends—most notably Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad)—built the Apple I in his parents’ garage and, with an investment from Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), saw the fledgling business grow into a major player in the emerging computer industry. But his inability to conform to the expectations of a bottom-line board headed by Arthur Rock (J.K. Simmons) and John Scully (Matthew Modine), whom he had himself chosen as CEO, led to his exit from Apple in 1985.
The company floundered in his absence, however, and by 1995 was near collapse. New CEO Gil Amelio (Kevin Dunn) begged Jobs to return as an advisor. It didn’t take long for the board to conclude that only his undisputed leadership could right the ship, however, and Jobs effectively engineered the ouster not only of Amelio, but of Markkula and everyone else he suspected of not sharing his vision of a risk-taking, innovative leader in the industry. He revivified Apple’s sense of mission, and the rest is history.
A history that, frankly, the film presumes everyone is familiar with. There’s nothing here about the iMac, the iPhone or the iPod; knowledge of those and the other Apple wonders that Jobs is credited with inspiring between 1998 and his death are taken for granted. The premise is that the prologue to all that creativity is what explains it—Jobs’ nature, which led to his driving himself and everyone he worked with to the limit of their capacities (and beyond), his utter exclusion of everything he deemed extraneous to his work (including his girlfriend and the child he long refused to recognize as his own), and in the end his ruthlessness in dealing with those he considered unequal to the tasks he intended to see accomplished.
All of which means that the portrait of Jobs that the film draws, while certainly respectful and even at times reverential, doesn’t overlook his darker side. (There’s even a suggestion of “Citizen Kane” in the scene in which Wozniak comes to Jobs to announce that he’s leaving the company, which calls to mind Jed Leland’s disillusionment with Kane.) But the film could hardly be termed a critical one. The point of view seems to be that the steely determination that defined the man, often to the exclusion of acting generously or even sympathetically toward those he determined weren’t up to his standards, was necessary to the fulfillment of a higher end—the revolutionary products that have changed the world. And Jobs’ methods, at times verging on the cruel, and manner, often brusque and tinged with simmering rage, did achieve his goals. Whether they were worth the human cost is something each viewer will have to decide.
In the hands of Whiteley and Sterns, moreover, “Jobs” deals with these matters in a rather flat, prosaic fashion that’s miles from the flamboyance Orson Welles brought to “Kane.” That can also be said of Ashton Kutcher’s performance in the title role. He works hard to get the voice and mannerisms right—when the camera follows him loping down the hall, the resemblance is striking—but in terms of inner life all he’s able to offer is a generalized sort of intensity. Gad’s Wozniak is an affable counterweight, but the character is only marginally fleshed out, and the rest of the supporting cast—including Mulroney, Modine, Simmons, Dunn, Lukas Haas as Daniel Kottke and Ron Eldard as Rod Holt—are basically stuck with one-note roles, though Eldard at least brings some exuberance to his shaggy engineer. Freddy Wolff’s production design gives the picture visual authenticity, and Russell Carpenter’s cinematography is okay if unadventurous, but Robert Komatsu’s editing is too often enervating.
Reportedly there’s another Jobs biopic in the planning stages with a script by Aaron Sorkin, which could be interesting coming from the man who gave us “The Social Network.” In the meantime this is at best a stopgap, a picture that tries hard but falls short.