With Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, Matthew Modine. Written by Matt Whiteley. Directed by Joshua Michael Stern. Rated PG-13 for some drug content and brief strong language. 122 minutes.
The problem with JOBS is that director Joshua Michael Stern and writer Matt Whiteley never seem to have settled on the story they wanted to tell. Steven Jobs was the visionary leader who created Apple Computer, was kicked out of his own company, and then came back in triumph. Unfortunately, it’s not clear if we’re supposed to like him, hate him, or––as with “The Social Network” and its depiction of founder Mark Zuckerberg––see his life as a cautionary tale.
The triumph of the film is the performance by Ashton Kutcher, which will no doubt be a surprise to people who know him only from his airhead characters on “That ‘70s Show” and “Dude, Where’s My Car?” His portrayal of Jobs is complex, showing him as driven by his goals to create devices that would transform the world, and yet with an utter lack of empathy for the people around him. People are to be used to advance his own aims. When Apple becomes big business, he gets the same treatment from the corporate types who have taken over his company, yet we get only hints that he’s learned something in the process.
After a prologue set in 2001, in which Jobs is showing introducing the iPod, the story goes back to the 1970s where he is a college dropout already showing the signs of self-absorption and callousness that will hurt him down the road. While working at video game manufacturer Atari, he meets Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad), whose genius proves essential to the budding enterprise, but who enjoys the work so much he says he would do it for free. Jobs cheats him out of part of a bonus for an assignment at the company, setting the stage for many betrayals to come.
Narratively, the story is unfocused. From the early days building computer boards in their garage to the infighting in Apple’s corporate boardroom, the film––like Jobs––loses its way. There are too many scenes of Jobs making announcements that are greeted with applause and too many scenes of people getting bad news in those boardrooms. After a while you wonder why you should care.
The film has a strong cast, but doesn’t know what to do with most of them. Blink and you miss James Woods as a college professor. J.K. Simmons and Kevin Dunn get to bluster as corporate types, and Matthew Modine has a nice turn as John Sculley, the Pepsi executive who was brought in to “save” the company. However, other than Kutcher and Gad, the only one who really stands out is Dermot Mulroney as Mike Markkula, an early investor in Apple. One gets the sense that if Jobs and Markkula had ever really gotten in sync, this whole story might have turned out differently.
If “Jobs” is a bit of a disappointment as a dramatization of recent technological history, it remains worth seeing as a demonstration of Kutcher’s skills as an actor. He’s able to convey why so many people admired Jobs and why they were willing to tie their fortunes to his even when he was screaming about fonts or denying stock options to his early partners. If this was a better film, there’d be Oscar buzz around this performance. Sally Field eventually got past people’s image of her as “Gidget” and “The Flying Nun.” Tom Hanks is no longer defined by “Bosom Buddies” or “Bachelor Party.” Maybe it’s time we put the callbacks to dough-head Kelso and “That ‘70s Show” to rest.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.