By Alan Mattli
Possibly the biggest danger in adapting for the screen the life of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 56 in the autumn of 2011, is that the resulting film would be overly hagiographic in nature, that it would merely be another voice in the choir of people hailing the tech pioneer, a man of dubious repute at best, as a visionary god among men granting unto his followers the gift of the iMac, the iPod, and the iPhone.
But in fact, Joshua Michael Stern’s biopic Jobs refrains from unequivocally carving its titular subject into a monument until well into the final act. What it fails to do, however, is to properly address and dissect both Jobs, played by the fitfully engaging, often painfully one-dimensional Ashton Kutcher, or any one of his now semi-famous contemporaries, as a person and Apple as a company, let alone a phenomenon.
Even though Stern includes a shot of Jobs and his friends walking in slow-motion basking in the sunlight of Silicon Valley, which elevates the practically self-proclaimed guru of the personal computer to a messianic figure, the film neither mentions the actual Apple craze of the 2000s, nor its CEO’s carcinosis, wondrous recovery, and ultimate death. Instead, the curtain drops in 1996 as Jobs, the prodigal son, returns to the company from which he was ousted in 1985, which seems, like so many things in Jobs, arbitrary.
Opening in 2001 with Jobs, dressed in his trademark turtleneck-and-jeans combination, presenting the first iPod to his employees, the film then jumps back to 1974, introducing us to the young, barefooted, idealistic college dropout, whose backstory, including his motivation and inspiration, is explained through ham-fisted expository dialogue (“Are you talking about your birth parents?”) and a clumsy LSD trip montage culminating in a trip to India we must assume to be formative, as writer Matt Whiteley never actually elaborates on its impact on Jobs.
The structure is decidedly the film’s most egregious problem. Unlike its obvious (and far superior) antecedent, David Fincher’s The Social Network, Jobs does little to take its similar premise, namely an IT-infused biography, beyond the narrative limitations of computer code. Strewn far and in between, there are moments, albeit unconvincing ones, where Stern seeks to transpose the homoerotic tension Fincher’s Facebook drama found in the relationship of Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin to the uneven pairing of Jobs and the laughable/loveable Nerd – capitalisation intended – Steve Wozniak (a solid Josh Gad). And although the lack of any real romance-driven subplot works to the film’s advantage, the strangely non-committal treatment of Jobs’s plagued relationship with his unwanted daughter does not exactly promote the idea that Stern and Whiteley are partaking in any kind of in-depth storytelling.
Apart from such occasional bouts of attempted character building, however, the majority of the runtime is devoted to ticking the boxes, ploughing through the first ten years of Apple history – Apple I and II, Lisa, the seminal Macintosh – at an irritatingly erratic pace, lazily working in a wide range of people attached to the company. Friends, colleagues, and investors like Daniel Kottke (Lukas Haas), Chris Espinosa (Eddie Hassell), Paul Terrell (Brad William Henke), Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), Arthur Rock (J.K. Simmons), or John Sculley (Matthew Modine) are introduced in ten-minute intervals (one could make a game of counting how many times a character says “I’m…” followed by their name) but never given anything even approaching a nuanced personality. Information about the goings-on between 1985 and 1996 is restricted to a faux news report recapping the events of eleven years in less than five sentences.
The story Whiteley and Stern build around this rather ungainly concept is accordingly muddled. Themes and conflicts crop up and disappear without resolve, radical changes in relationships take place over the course of an edit. Steve Jobs’s megalomaniacal feud with Bill Gates and IBM, perhaps the film’s most self-aware episode, is addressed but never explored. Somewhere around the hour mark, disillusion supplants the initial euphoria surrounding Apple Computer start-up success; the word “crisis” starts being used more often. But since the film fails to both show the company’s early flourish and the later decline, favouring instead stilted scenes of board meetings discussing the financial situation, neither narrative is a particulary arresting one.
The same applies to the portrayal of Jobs’s technical wonders, which, no matter what their inventor’s personal shortcomings, so far have stood the test of time as landmarks of technological advancement and the familiarisation of the public with high-tech goods (“computers for the everyman” was Jobs’s vision, in keeping with the spirit of the Reagan years). Ample screentime is given to the development of and the assorted problems facing the Apple II, for instance. The finished product, however, never makes an appearance; its undoubtedly groundbreaking innovations, of which the visualisation of the work process stands out, remain a piece of dialogue, uninspiring and, even more damningly, uninteresting.
Adding to the negative effect of Whiteley’s dreadful script is Joshua Michael Stern’s lacklustre direction, which, much like the screenplay, is overly eager to indulge in simplification and cliché. Era-specific music and television clips are used as markers of time and place with no trace of subtlety; the orchestral soundtrack all but tells the viewer how to feel. It doesn’t help that most of the movie is filmed in a hideously garish light that actually starts to strain the eyes come the third act.
How fitting, then, that all these deficiencies – the sordid writing, the unimaginative staging, the banal use of visual codes – should come together at the point where Jobs leaves behind all ambition to be a serious treatment of Steve Jobs’s life and introduces Apple designer Jonathan Ive (Giles Matthey), who gives a speech about what his beloved company stands for that is so fervent it could have been written by Apple’s PR department. It is, in terms of both quality and taste, the nadir of a film that alternates between being infuriatingly incompetent and frustratingly generic, something the real Steve Jobs, love him or hate him, never would have stood for.
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.