Review: While 'Jobs' fawns over subject, film falls flat

The eagerly awaited biopic of the Apple founder aims to capture a legend, but it neglects the world he lived in.

Casey Newton Former Senior Writer
Casey Newton writes about Google for CNET, which he joined in 2012 after covering technology for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is really quite tall.
Casey Newton
4 min read
Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs in "jOBS."
Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs in "jOBS." Five Star Feature Films
Editor's note, 8/15: This review was originally published in January after a screening at the Sundance Film Festival. CNET is spotlighting the review as the movie opens in theaters across the U.S. on August 16.

PARK CITY, Utah -- The eagerly awaited biopic "Jobs" opens in 2001, when Apple's iconic co-founder arrives at Town Hall on Apple's Cupertino, Calif., campus with good news. A secret team, Steve Jobs tells his employees, has built a product that will revolutionize the way everyone listens to music. Before he can even show them the iPod, the employees have sprung to their feet, wild-eyed and ecstatic, and their thunderous applause is eventually drowned out only by strings swelling in the background. It's a scene that sets the tone for all that is to follow: for most of the film's two hours, "Jobs" rarely stops clapping for its subject.

The team behind "Jobs," which was directed by Joshua Michael Stern, began working on the project shortly before Jobs retired from Apple in 2011. The script by first-time screenwriter Matt Whiteley covers Jobs' life from 1974, when Jobs attended classes at Reed College in Oregon, to 2001, when he announced the iPod to Apple employees. Along the way "Jobs" covers most of the major milestones of its subject's time at Apple: the Apple I, the Apple II, the Lisa, and the Macintosh all are shown in development, as Jobs (a hard-working Ashton Kutcher) works to bring his vision of personal computing to the masses. Jobs hand-picks John Sculley to become Apple's CEO, hoping his marketing expertise will help the company overtake IBM in the PC market. But Sculley disappoints Jobs, who alienates his allies on Apple's board of directors and is ousted from the company he started. Only Apple's near-death experience in 1997 is enough to bring him back to Apple -- first as an adviser, then as an "interim" CEO -- and with the success of the Bondi blue iMacs, Apple was ascendant once again.

It's a story that will be familiar to readers of Walter Isaacson's recent Jobs biography or any number of other histories of the company. The opportunity "Jobs" had was to render these legendary events of Silicon Valley's history on screen, and to dramatize the contradictions of a man who remained unknowable even to some of those closest to him.

The movie gives it a shot. Kutcher drew skepticism when he was announced as the film's lead, despite an uncanny resemblance to the man he would be playing. But he throws himself into the role, inhabiting Jobs in his mannerisms and gestures while doing a more than creditable impression of the man's voice. Kutcher also captures Jobs' deliberate, slightly hunched-over walk. At moments, as during an enjoyable sequence in which Jobs recruits members for the Macintosh team, Kutcher disappears into the role.

The filmmakers do show Jobs being a jerk: he sleeps around, he yells at people, he parks in handicapped spaces. He persuades Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) to perform crucial work for him but lies about how much he is being paid, so he can dramatically underpay his best friend. An hour into the movie, he fires someone during an argument over font availability on the Lisa.

Yet the filmmakers are more interested in showing Jobs going about the work of being a genius. Over and over again, minor characters explain to him why something can't be done; Kutcher-as-Jobs smiles enigmatically and waves away their concerns. (It is left to someone else, far off screen, to turn his visions into reality.) We watch Jobs out-negotiate a computer parts store owner, lecture the team making the Lisa, and ride to the rescue of the Macintosh. Each time, he speaks of how the technology Apple is building will improve the lives of average people. Co-workers argue with him, but they never get anywhere, because their parts are poorly written and the filmmakers have no interest in showing their subject being wrong about his work. The film mentions Lisa's failure but has no interest in what part Jobs played in that failure; all Apple failures in "Jobs" are portrayed as the result of conservative, backward-thinking executives beholden only to their shareholders. The result is that the viewer spends two hours watching cardboard cutouts lose arguments to Ashton Kutcher.

Kutcher speaks fully 40 percent of the lines in "Jobs." Unfortunately, he has almost no one to play off of. Dermot Mulroney, as early Apple investor Mike Markkula, shakes his head at Jobs' excesses without ever really challenging him. J.K. Simmons, as the Apple board chairman who oversees Jobs' ouster, is a cartoon villain. Women in the film barely exist; an actress playing Chris-Ann Brennan has a single underwritten scene informing a young Jobs that she is carrying his baby; years later in the film, a small scene shows Jobs at home with his wife. Only Gad, as Wozniak, gets a scene standing up to the great man -- as Woz quits Apple, he criticizes Jobs for losing his humanity amid a single-minded pursuit of making great products. It's something even Jobs' staunchest admirers have to wrestle with, and the film could have used more of that.

Others will write of the things "Jobs" omits, gets wrong, or simply avoids. My primary disappointment was in how shallow the film felt, given the extensive historical record. In the early days Jobs' co-workers had to wrestle with a man who smelled bad, who cried often, who yelled constantly, who missed deadlines, who overspent his budget by millions. He did it in service of products we love and use daily, and yet his obsessions took a toll on those around him. He also inspired others to do the best work of their lives, pushing themselves further than they ever imagined they could go. There is great drama to be found in all that, but it is not to be found in the saccharine "Jobs."