At the risk of damning with faint praise, it should be noted that Ashton Kutcher is not a disaster in Jobs.
A dramatization of the life of Apple founder and chief executive Steve Jobs, the movie opens with a brief prologue showing Kutcher, in a graying beard, at the 2001 unveiling of the iPod music player. The film then leaps backward to the 1970s, when a barefoot and much younger Jobs is about to become a Reed College dropout.
The shaggy-haired hippie kid is far more comfortable territory for Kutcher, who, in his mid-30s, still looks and sounds like a boy. Flashing back to the character as a young man helps the audience get used to Kutcher in the role. The initial shock of seeing the baby-faced actor playing a 46-year-old man subsides, allowing his portrayal to grow on you — and Kutcher to grow into the part — as the character matures. The film follows Jobs from the creation of Apple Computer in his parents’ garage to his 1985 firing and triumphant return to the company in 1996.
Kutcher does a couple of things well, aping Jobs’ guarded, tight-lipped smile and familiar, half-hunching, half-bouncing gait, even if at times they seem more like ill-fitting mannerisms than expressions of Jobs’ driven personality. But there’s a void inside the man that Kutcher never manages to fill.
The problem is not with the actor but with the film itself.
Directed by Joshua Michael Stern (“Swing Vote”) and written by first-time screenwriter Matt Whiteley, “Jobs” confuses the story of Apple, the company, with the story of its guru and guiding force, spending way too much time on backroom personnel dealings than on encounters that might help us understand, on a deep level, the title character. Admittedly, the story of Jobs’ entrepreneurship is a fascinating one in its own right, and the film makes it clear that he was as much a corporate shark as a creative visionary.
Yet even as the movie tracks the ups and down of Jobs’ career, it gets bogged down in the fate of other, less central — and frankly less interesting — players. Is the film’s abridged parade of Apple CEOs — Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), John Sculley (Matthew Modine) and Gil Amelio (Kevin Dunn) — really of interest to anyone besides Apple geeks?
Directed by Joshua Michael Stern. Written by Matt Whiteley. An Open Road release, playing at Cinemark Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for some drug content and brief strong language. Running time: 122 minutes.
Critic’s rating: **
Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, J.K. Simmons, Lukas Haas
Focusing on those details, “Jobs” gives short shrift to the story’s human side. There’s an initial suggestion that Jobs’ relationship with his daughter with an ex-girlfriend will be an important theme. But it’s ultimately handled in only the most cursory way. We see their relationship begin as estrangement, revealing a nasty side of the film’s subject and showing that the filmmakers aren’t afraid of honesty. Much later, however, when it’s clear that there has been a reconciliation, the connective tissue is missing. It would be nice to see how Jobs and his daughter repaired their relationship.
Instead, the vast majority of the movie concerns his professional life, giving an unfortunate new meaning to the film’s title.
One exception is Jobs’ friendship and partnership with Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Josh Gad). As Apple’s sweetly geeky co-founder, Gad is a real pleasure, and his scenes with Kutcher help us understand Jobs, even when — maybe especially when — the two are awkwardly parting ways, late in the film. If the movie has a point, it’s that Jobs may have been a genius but that he was no saint. When he’s firing a low-level Apple staffer because the employee doesn’t care enough about computer type fonts, it’s both funny and painful (and, yes, a bit gratifying).
Although I think I could watch a whole movie called “Woz” and not grow tired, “Jobs” eventually begins to suffer from an ailment common to many biopics: milestone fatigue. The film is so thick with Jobs’ career highlights and lowlights that there’s little room for insights. What made this famously private man tick?
Kutcher tries to tell us, but “Jobs” keeps getting in the way. It’s probably a good thing that the story stops in the mid-1990s, instead of following the narrative all the way to Jobs’ death, from pancreatic cancer, in 2011. If it were any more thorough, it could be a CNBC miniseries. I’m just not sure that it would be more illuminating.