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Friday, December 27, 2013

Review: Jobs

Ashton Kutcher is Surprisingly Superb as Apple Founder Steve Jobs

By Chris Sabga



Release Date: August 16, 2013 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Biography, Drama
Running Time: 128 minutes
Director: Joshua Michael Stern
Writer: Matt Whiteley
Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, 
Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, Matthew Modine, 
J.K. Simmons, James Woods, Kevin Dunn, 
Giles Matthey


Watching "Jobs" is somewhat like operating an iPod Shuffle; it rapidly shuffles through the highlights and lowlights of Steve Jobs' "insanely great" life. It races through the facts covered in biographies such as Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs, Infinite Loop, and others. "Jobs" never lingers on any one event for too long, which is both a positive and a negative: the story moves at a breakneck pace, but the film provides only a cursory, skin deep, surface treatment of its subject.

Critics and fans alike have easily dismissed Ashton Kutcher over the years, but I've always defended his talent. Here, he delivers the performance of his career as Steve Jobs, expertly channeling the Apple founder's voice, inflections, and reported facial expressions and mannerisms. It is clear that Kutcher has poured his heart and soul into his portrayal of Jobs. He, dare I say, deserves an Academy Award nomination. After all, Meryl Streep won the Oscar for her incredible acting in the otherwise unbearable Margaret Thatcher biopic, "The Iron Lady." Both films are similar in structure: they present a rushed highlight reel of people, places, and historical events. Of course, Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep, so she can get away with being rewarded for great work in a movie that isn't nearly as good as she is. Kutcher obviously does not have the same reputation or cachet. Like Streep, Kutcher is better than the film he's in, but "Jobs" is ultimately far more enjoyable and effective than "The Iron Lady."

Some might nitpick the "facts" of the film, but it never stays with anything long enough for any real controversy to arise. (Jobs' ill-fated NeXT project is briefly covered, but his years at Pixar are strangely absent.) In cases where there are disputing stories, the movie picks a side and sticks with it – for better or worse. One example: Steve "Woz" Wozniak (played here by Josh Gad) claims that Jobs cheated him on the payoff for the Atari game "Breakout," but Jobs steadfastly denied that his entire life. In this instance, Woz's version of events wins out.

Gad does a great job, playing Woz as a sweet innocent who never quite adapts to corporate life. The idealistic Woz eventually becomes a fish out of water at Apple as the company and his relationship with Jobs gradually changes.

In addition to Kutcher and Gad, several other notable actors show up: James Woods as Reed College professor and dean Jack Dudman, Lukas Haas as Apple employee Daniel Kottke, and Kevin Dunn as eventual Apple CEO Gil Amelio, but the highlights are Dermot Mulroney as entrepreneur Mike Markkula, Matthew Modine as former Pepsi head John Sculley, and J.K Simmons as investor Arthur Rock. 

It's fun to watch Rock the way J.K. Simmons portrays him – as an office terminator with scary '80s hair and '70s glasses. In anyone else's hands, it might have come across as cartoonish and excessive, but Simmons is skilled enough to make it realistic. Meanwhile, Mulroney's Markkula is depicted as a skittish stooge who will go in whichever direction the wind blows, and Modine's Sculley comes across as an uptight, buttoned-up, too-corporate, sugar water salesman who doesn't quite seem to understand what he's selling now. All three actors are top-notch, as usual.

The real Steve Jobs with the first iMac.
(Picture courtesy of computerhistory.org)
English newcomer Giles Matthey is also wonderful in a small role as Jonathan Ive, who holds a torch for what Apple used to be and wants to help restore the organization to its former glory. That's demonstrated in the film with Ive's bold, stylish design of the first iMac.

As Atari higher-up Al Alcorn (David Denman) says in the film, Jobs is an "asshole." That's probably true, but as great as Kutcher is in the role, he's limited by the script, which shoehorns him into showing mostly the negative side of computer icon. His Jobs walks around acting like a psychopath – pouting perennially like a toddler on the verge of a temper tantrum. There are only fleeting glimpses of the charismatic, charming Jobs that changed the world. That approach reminds me of Michael Mann's overrated "Ali," in which Will Smith portrays the famous boxer as an angry activist who rarely cracked a smile. The real Ali could light up a room. So could the real Jobs.

One of the bigger missed opportunity in "Jobs" is its depiction of the famous "sugar water" pitch. To lure Pespi CEO John Sculley over to Apple, Jobs baited him with an irresistible hook: "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life," he challenged, "or do you want to come with me and change the world?" Instead of showing the hypnotic meeting between Jobs and Sculley, the movie has Sculley tell the story in a joking manner while everyone around him laughs appreciatively. Perhaps that's meant to show what an ill-fit Sculley would turn out to be for the Apple culture, but I would have still preferred to hear the line from Kutcher's magnetic version of Jobs.

"Jobs" is a mixed bag overall, but I like it enough to recommend it. Ashton Kutcher may not get to bring every aspect of Steve Jobs' fascinating personality to life, but it's still far and away the best performance of his career. It's a shame that his astonishing work as Jobs will mostly go ignored because the movie – like the Lisa Computer – was a critical and commercial bust.

Full Disclosure: This review was written on a Windows PC.  

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