MOVIE REVIEW: "Jobs"

Recently, I went with a friend to see "Jobs".  I had not heard particularly good things about this movie, but I was curious to see if Ashton Kutcher could really pull off serious acting.  Much has been made of the actor's dedicated study of every aspect of Job's physicality and speech; it's clearly the role of a lifetime for him.  Reportedly, Kutcher adopted Jobs' fruitarian diet and wound up in the hospital as a result.  The actor's uncanny resemblance to Jobs was likely the reason for his casting, but it's exciting to see an actor who's made his name acting in low-grade rom-coms to take this huge step into the realm of more serious dramatic acting.
(mashable.com)

What "Jobs" seeks to be is the definitive Jobs biopic; it has some heavy competition arriving within the next couple of years, courtesy of Aaron Sorkin.  It seeks to combine a sort of tortured-genius mythos with the friendships-turned-sour aspect of the far superior The Social Network about Facebook inventor Mark Zuckerberg.  However, this film approaches the subject of Steve Jobs in a painfully earnest way, practically screaming at the audience: "Look at Steve Jobs!  He was misunderstood!  He was a visionary!  His own desperate need for control and perfectionism is what made him both successful, but also lonely!"  

The film opens with the 2001 launch of the original iPod, as a slight, bearded Kutcher-as-Jobs stands on a stage clad in his classic black turtleneck and jeans.  As Jobs pulls the iPod--"it can hold 1,000 songs!"-- from his pocket, the audience erupts into a standing ovation.  The film then takes a chronological tack, tracing Steve Jobs' auditing a calligraphy class at Reed College (a comically undisguised UCLA), sleeping around, and taking hallucinogenic drugs.  The latter instance provides one of the many instances of unintentional humor in the movie, as the movie cuts from Steve learning philosophy, wandering through India, and conducting a non-existent symphony in a meadow while under the influence of drugs.  The film then tracks Jobs' journey up through 1993-4, as he builds computers, founds Apple, endures massive failures of marketing and sales, is ousted by the company board, and is courted by the company years later, its tail between its legs, and is reinstated as head of Apple.

Amidst the multitude of montages and scenes demonstrating Jobs' particular brand of genius and drug-inspired inspiration are some truly gruesome scenes wherein Jobs is presented in an abusive, wholly unsympathetic light.  How are we supposed to think of Steve Jobs knowing that he's callously abandoned and denying fathering Lisa Brennan Jobs, knowing his own pain over being adopted?  Is his naming his ill-fated early computer model "Lisa" a way of reaching out, an apology, a sentimental gesture?  Is that token supposed to undo all the pain he causes people close to him throughout the course of the movie?  

This dichotomy between what the film insists is Jobs at his best, and what we the audience see as Jobs at his arguable worst undermines the overall message and what we are supposed to take away from the movie.  It is difficult to revert to admiring Jobs' skill and sheer nerve that the movie so emphasizes once we've seen him mistreat those around him and verbally abuse his coworkers.  These highly negative aspects of Steve Jobs' personality are not satisfyingly contextualized in the film.  Where The Social Network succeeds far better in this regard is that that film's Mark Zuckerberg is presented as a wholly alienating figure throughout, redeemed in part only by his tragically-fated friendship with Eduardo Saverin.  The friendship between Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the programmer with whom he worked on his original computer models and with whom he founded Apple, fails to achieve the same tragedy when it inevitably turns sour.  Josh Gad is excellent as the friendly, shy Woz, a lonely programmer who just wants to be friends with the "cool" Jobs, but the portrayal of their friendship falls short of the Zuckerberg/Saverin friendship.  Whereas Zuckerberg and Saverin are allowed to be actual human beings with complementary skills and flaws, this film, first and foremost, is a monument to Jobs.  Thus, while Woz is a believable human character, Jobs is never presented on the same level, always an echelon of reverence above his friend and collaborator.

There are times that the film thinks it's being clever-- it's a cute device to have Woz and Steve arguing over the name of their fledgling computer company during an impromptu car ride to present their first model at a Stanford computer club, but the subsequent conversation is the filmmakers trying to be coy, winking and nudging at the audience: "Steve Jobs doesn't care about Apple Records already existing because he hates the Beatles! He prefers Bob Dylan, see!  Ha-ha-ha!" Yes, people had to wait years and years to purchase Beatles music via iTunes, one of the music service's most glaring omissions, because of Apple Records copyright issues, but this aside goes over like a lead balloon.

What struck me as odd was that the film ends as Jobs re-ascends to the top of Apple after his ungraceful ousting--that is, in 1993-4.  The film ends on a certain note of "...and you all know what happens next."  By this token, the film is arguably geared towards a generation older than myself.  I was born around the time this movie ends, and I don't know what happens to take Steve Jobs from building new Macintosh models to the iPod launch that opens the film.  I would be interested, for example, to see how Steve Jobs moves from designing home and work computers to creating iTunes, the iPod, and the iPhone--products that hold more significance for my generation than the failed Apple "Lisa", which the film devotes no pittance of time towards.  I am frankly quite surprised that this film does not even touch upon the creation of iTunes.  I also would have been eager to see how he manages to reconnect with his daughter Lisa after his unceremonious firing from Apple--how could such a proud, isolating, demanding man manage to reconnect with his family and settle down in Palo Alto?

Ashton Kutcher certainly surprised me in this film.  There are times when he is almost unrecognizable, not due to prosthetics or facial hair, but by an unfamiliar look in his eyes that tells us he is someone else entirely.  He definitely looks the part, and has clearly taken pains to copy Jobs' odd, controlled voice and his lurching, almost hopping gait as well as Jobs' unique arm- and body language.

Ultimately, while this film does boast some keen performances, it is not quite the sum of its parts, and emerges a muddle of an homage to a man who seems a difficult subject to chronicle.  This film tries to uncover who Steve Jobs was, but too often it puts him on a pedestal and glosses over more critical moments in the man's life.

Comments

  1. Wow. Pretty in-depth analysis of the movie. Not sure if i will see it in theaters or wait for DVD...or maybe it will somehow be available through itunes..LOL :) Nice job.

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  2. It was always going to put him on a pedestal, which is why it was always going to be a very dishonest type of film. Again, I would recommend a grace period of sorts after the death of a "larger-than-life" figure, to prevent biographies that are just tributes in disguise from being written and dominating the whole image. Honestly, he was in many respects a rather terrible guy. The Supreme Court of Assholedom, in a lovely piece, gave him a significant number of points but concluded that we ourselves were also to blame for demanding his products. Said one justice, Jobs was a "'my-way-or-the-highway dick'" who gave virtually nothing to charity despite being one of the richest men on earth, who tried to squirm out of the paternity of his own daughter, and whose atrocious labor record was only slightly mitigated by the utility of his assholedom."

    But as I type this there's an iPhone next to my keyboard, so perhaps none of us is in a place to judge.

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