The casting of Ashton Kutcher turns out to be the sole risky element of “Jobs,” a smooth, reasonably engaging but not especially revealing early-years account of Steve Jobs’ storied career. Offering a creditable take on the 20-year period in which the determined young tech whiz founded, lost and eventually regained control of Apple, helmer Joshua Michael Stern’s biopic avoids outright hagiography, but more or less embodies the sort of bland, go-with-the-flow creative thinking Jobs himself would have scorned. Widespread interest in the late entrepreneur and his legacy could spark moderate audience interest.
Open Road Films will release the film on April 19, about 18 months after Jobs’ death and exactly 37 years after Apple’s inception. A brief prologue, full of beatific white lighting and overpowering music, shows a 46-year-old Jobs (Kutcher) unveiling the iPod in 2001, wearing his signature black turtleneck. Matt Whiteley’s screenplay then rewinds back to 1974, shortly after young Northern California native Steve, sporting a dark mustache and goatee, has dropped out of college, although crucially, he hasn’t lost his intellectual spark or his determination to change the world.
Brief, early scenes of Steve taking a calligraphy class and traveling to India with his friend Daniel Kottke (Lukas Haas) establish the soulful, artistic impulse that will go hand-in-hand with the man’s later inventions. Spotting an early prototype built by his portly programming bud Steve Wozniak, aka Woz (Josh Gad), Steve decides that they should manufacture and sell personal computers under the simple corporate moniker of Apple. Startling as it may seem for iPad-toting members of the audience, these events unfold at a time when “nobody wants to buy a computer,” per Woz.
Still, with the help of similarly tech-minded friends and a financial investment courtesy of former Intel employee Mike Markkula (a distractingly coiffed Dermot Mulroney), Apple blossoms from a suburban garage operation into a full-fledged company. Depicted as more of an aesthete and salesman than a nuts-and-bolts technician, Steve has a clear vision for Apple’s computer products, marked by elegant, streamlined design and intuitive, user-friendly interfaces.
Yet the downside of Steve’s visionary leadership soon begins to assert itself. “You’re damn good, but you’re an asshole,” someone tells him early on, and sure enough, Steve’s stubborn, uncompromising nature leads him to devalue close friends and colleagues and run afoul of board member Arthur Rock (J.K. Simmons), who becomes determined to wrest control of the company away from its founder and chief innovator.
To their credit, Stern (“Swing Vote”) and Whiteley seem intent on rendering their subject in as many complex layers as possible, emphasizing not only the man’s temperamental, confrontational streak but also his particularly callous treatment of the women in his life. In a version of events that pointedly excludes such sensitive personal matters as Jobs’ adoption (John Getz and Lesley Ann Warren make brief, warm appearances as his parents), the story takes pains to include scenes of Steve dumping his pregnant girlfriend (Ahna O’Reilly) and initially refusing to acknowledge paternity of their daughter.
If these moments are intended to suggest the cruel emotional withdrawal needed in order for genius to flourish, they unfortunately make the point in overly blunt and obvious fashion. This emphatic quality plagues the film as a whole, which too often drives home ideas and character insights through intense but cliched speechifying (“Steve, you are your own worst enemy” and “You’re either with me or against me” are among the heavier examples).
Sticking close to its subject and unspooling its story in brisk, linear fashion, “Jobs” boasts little in the way of fresh angles or context, and provides scarcely a glimpse of the outside-world impact of the tech revolution as led by Apple, IBM, Microsoft, et al. The film relies too heavily on one’s foreknowledge of the man’s life and work, the expectation being that viewers will be able to fill in the story’s necessary gaps and draw the appropriate life lessons from it.
Yet it’s precisely that familiarity with Jobs, who reached iconic status in the years before his death, that often undercuts the effectiveness of Kutcher’s carefully judged performance. Despite the superficial physical resemblance between actor and subject, enhanced by thick glasses, longish hair and an impressive attempt at vocal mimickry on Kutcher’s part, the illusion never fully seizes hold. Amid the sizable supporting cast, the strongest impressions come courtesy of Gad as Woz, providing some gentle comic relief as well as a sensible counterbalance to his friend’s suffer-no-fools impatience, and Mulroney as the angel investor-turned-board member who does his best to stand by Steve in difficult moments.
Ultimately, “Jobs” is a prosaic but not unaffecting tribute to the virtues of defiance, nonconformity, artistry, beauty, craftsmanship, imagination and innovation, qualities it only intermittently reflects as a piece of filmmaking. Freddy Waff’s production design and Lisa Jensen-Nye’s costumes subtly capture the look of each decade; the soundtrack blares too insistently with some of Jobs’ favorite artists, including Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan.