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August 16, 2013

The thesis of Jobs comes swiftly: a manager at Atari tells us, “[he’s] damn good, but [he’s] an asshole.” Conveniently, this is pretty much exactly the public myth surrounding the late Apple founder, and Jobs is content to spend another two hours retelling that myth rather than dig any deeper.

It starts with Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) as a dropout from Reed College, still hanging around auditing courses in electrical engineering and calligraphy, and also running off to an ashram and dropping acid. All of these things happened, of course, but the movie treats them as a checklist to rush through in the first of many montages.

Then we’re on to Atari, where Jobs gets an independent project because he can’t work effectively with anyone else. He pulls in his friend, Hewlett-Packard electronics whiz Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad), to do most of the work, and pockets the bulk of the money himself. The presentation is somewhat simplified to help paint Jobs as a little more of an opportunist than the real story would support.

Jobs sees Wozniak’s side project, a compact circuit board that can display its output on any television or monitor. Wozniak is content to tool around with it himself, but Jobs sees the potential for the home computer market. He pushes to present it and finagles a deal with a local electronics shop for the first order of fifty units, then hires three guys he can’t afford — including his Reed College friend Daniel Kottke (Lukas Haas) — to assemble the boards. After struggling along for a while, they attract the attention of investor Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), and business starts to take off.

The bulk of the movie is taken up with Jobs’ work on the Lisa and the Macintosh, and his subsequent ejection from the company at the hands of board chairman Arthur Rock. Jobs is, of course, just as ruthless with those around him as well, but it feels like a backhanded insult, like telling an interviewer one’s biggest weakness is perfectionism. Even painting Jobs as an asshole somehow comes off as praise. This is hagiography, after all.

But after spending all this time leading up to 1985, Jobs’ time in the wilderness takes up all of fifteen minutes. His other computer venture, NeXT, merits exactly three passing mentions. Pixar doesn’t come up at all. We just get the triumphant genius hero returning in 1996 and cleaning house before the credits roll.

And this is a big, big problem if you actually want to tell Jobs’ story. These companies are where Jobs really got the experience running things his way and proving that he could be successful. Saying so little about NeXT is particularly galling to my computer-heavy background, since it was the linchpin of Apple’s recovery. The iPod was an important step, of course, and the industrial design of Jony Ive (Giles Matthey), but without OS X the ideal of computer-as-appliance — including the iPhone and iPad, which are completely absent from the movie — would never have gotten off the ground. And OS X is the direct descendent of the NeXTSTEP operating system; Jobs’ later success is intimately connected to his time spent away from Apple, and screenwriter Matt Whiteley can’t be bothered to get into any of that.

Kutcher is surprisingly decent as Jobs. He gives one of his least Kutchery performances ever, though a little of his stock impishness bleeding through is an important part of Jobs’ character. I’ll admit that I was worried that this would amount to the worst of the movie’s stunt casting, but it turns out that’s not really a problem.

No, the problem is in the script and the jumpy, erratic direction of Joshua Michael Stern. It plays as a cross between a long-form commercial — dialogue often degenerates into a sequence of paeans to Jobs’ vision, delivered more to the audience than any other character — and a prequel — lots of time is spent on “and this is where that came from” moments. There are weird, choppy cuts, like a split-second shot of Brett Gelman as original Macintosh project lead Jeff Raskin that seems designed to portray him as a dangerous lunatic. And after stressing how insistent Jobs was on custom, proportional fonts in his word processing program, the end credits are rendered in an ugly, jagged, non-anti-aliased font that never would have passed muster. There’s tons of this sort of cruft built up everywhere.

If there are, indeed, “Apple fanboys” who followed every word of St. Steven as if it were holy writ, Jobs would be the movie for them. Even someone like me who likes and appreciates Apple and its products will find this saccharine and half-baked.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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