Thursday, August 15, 2013
New Movie about Steve Jobs Fails to Impress Critics
It would drive Steve Jobs nuts to know that the new movie about his life has all the sex appeal of a PowerPoint presentation. It isn’t only that PowerPoint has become synonymous with the dry, dreary, droning of corporate meetings or that it’s an application developed by Microsoft, itself a favorite target of Jobs. (“The only problem with Microsoft,” he said, “is they just have no taste.” Also: “They just make really third-rate products.”) Jobs, who died in 2011 at 56 from complications of pancreatic cancer, thought of himself as an artist, one who, in talking about the design of the Macintosh, said, “Great art stretches the taste, it doesn’t follow tastes.”
The historical record is all that’s stretched in “Jobs,” which stars Ashton Kutcher and was directed by Joshua Michael Stern. Compression and omissions are part of any biography. So it’s to be expected that a two-hour movie about one of the most important public figures in recent times leaves out a lot, including famous feuds, forgottencolleagues and even significant business ventures. The point isn’t that there are gaps; the point is what and who have been left out. It’s understandable that a movie that concentrates on Jobs’s earlier years would overlook his involvement with Pixar, which he capitalized in 1986; given the filmmakers’ difficulties dealing with hisdifficulties it’s also understandable that they slide over a little player called the Xerox Corporation.
The story of Jobs visiting Xerox’s Palo Alto research center in 1979 and realizing that the company was, as he put it, “sitting on a gold mine,” is an oft-repeated foundationaltale, partly because he appropriated some of Xerox’s ideas. It was during this visit, he later said, that he could see “what the future of computing was destined to be.” In the movie this epiphanic moment seems to occur earlier, during an acid trip. It’s the early 1970s and Steve, who’s dropped out of college, is bumming around, usually barefoot. One day he and two friends, Chrisann Brennan (Ahna O’Reilly) and Daniel Kottke (Lukas Haas), go on a lysergically enhanced picnic that culminates with Steve drifting into a field and, as the camera twirls around him and the sun shines upon him, throwing his arms open to the infinite.
Before long, Steve has embraced his destiny, hooked up with Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad, delivering a sympathetic, sensitive performance) and is staring into a different immensity: the Apple computer and the technological revolution that it helped bring about. Things move quickly for Steve, who one minute is cobbling together the first Apple in his family’s garage and the next is crunching numbers with an investor, Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney). There are good, bad, happy, sad times, mostly with guys (women barely register), though it all gets heavier after Steve starts driving a Porsche and shacks up in a mansion with only an Einstein poster for company, a trajectory echoed in the soundtrack: “Life’s Been Good,” “Roll With the Changes,” “You Can Do (Whatever).”
Written by Matt Whiteley, the movie is bookended by scenes of the middle-aged Jobs, doing what some believed he did best: pitching new products. Fuzzed up and hunched over, Mr. Kutcher looks somewhat like the young Jobs, and there are moments — as when he gives another character a small, devious look as if sliding in a knife — that the casting seems more than a matter of bottom-line calculation. But Mr. Kutcher doesn’t have the tools that some actors use to transcend weak material and either he didn’t receive any help or didn’t allow any real direction from Mr. Stern. Mr. Kutcher’s tendency to cap so many emotional scenes with small, self-satisfied smiles is especially unfortunate because they can’t help but bring to mind his other career as a pitchman for digital cameras.
The greater blame rests on the filmmakers, who never find a way to navigate the “passions, perfectionism, demons, desires, artistry, devilry and obsession for control” that Walter Isaacson enumerated in “Steve Jobs,” his 2011 authorized biography. Mr. Stern and Mr. Whiteley pile up Jobs’s multitudes: he screams and smirks, the score rises triumphantly only to ease and darken. Other characters announce to Steve and one another that he’s changed. But how and why? There are nods at his adoption and the daughter he initially refused to acknowledge, but those never amount to much and, after a while, you don’t care. The Great Man theory of history that’s recycled in this movie is inevitably unsatisfying, but never more so when the figure at the center remains as opaque as Jobs does here.