By Jeffrey Goldfarb
NEW YORK, Aug 16 (Reuters Breakingviews) - A movie about Steve Jobs ought to embody the bold and visionary spirit of its subject. Ashton Kutcher does his best impersonation of the Apple founder, but that's about as inspired as "Jobs" really gets.
Like the original Mac, iPod or iPhone, this indie production is only the first iteration of the Jobs biopic. More, hopefully improved, versions will follow. "Jobs" dramatizes a stretch from the entrepreneur's shaggy-haired, barefoot college days in the 1970s to his triumphant return to Apple in 1996 from a boardroom coup.
It's a story with a compelling dramatic arc but a lead character ultimately subsumed by the plot. For those unfamiliar with the story, "Jobs" is a suitable primer. It's just that the movie would have been more appropriately entitled "Apple."
Before flashing back to Jobs as a college dropout taking acid, "Jobs" opens with his presentation of the first iPod in 2001 to a cheering staff. The scene allows Kutcher to show off his mastery of the entrepreneur's awkward gait, smile and speech. Unfortunately, the script by first-time screenwriter Matt Whiteley doesn't allow the star to get much beyond those physical feats.
A montage of Jobs attending a calligraphy class, cheating on his girlfriend and traveling to India lays the groundwork for the character's struggle to find a calling. Jobs doesn't play well with others in his first job at Atari and needs the help of buddy Steve Wozniak, played to Falstaffian excellence by Josh Gad, to complete a project he has hubristically promised his boss.
When he recognizes the possibilities for some hobbyist tinkering done by Woz, it is the first - and pretty much only - sign that Jobs is a big picture kind of guy. Rather than get inside the man's special ability to think differently, the movie instead tries to convey the idea by substituting repeated scenes of Jobs anguishing under an Einstein portrait in his otherwise bare living room.
Following his prescient appreciation for how the union of a keyboard and screen would bring a computer into every home, Jobs bluffs and blusters his way to success, starting in the now-immortalized garage of his adoptive parents. The career rise is where "Jobs" hits its stride, though in too much detail.
Jobs uses bravado to parlay a demo at the inaugural West Coast Computer Fair into the first Apple II customer and secures a $300,000 valuation from angel investor Mike Markkula, played by Dermot Mulroney in one of the movie's many bland and forgettable sidekick roles. Jobs eventually betrays some of his original misfits and rebels and, of course, is ultimately betrayed by Markkula, Apple board member Arthur Rock (J.K. Simmons as a heartless suit straight out of central casting) and Jobs' hand-picked chief executive, Pepsi boss John Sculley (Matthew Modine).
The narrative is compelling but more suited to a CNBC prime-time special. To depict the corporate drama in such detail, replete with arguments over budgets and team groupings, required the sacrifice of a deeper biography.
Jobs nastily denies being the father of his daughter, only to mysteriously reunite with her later in the movie. Just why he treats the people around him the way he does is missing. Only the relationship with Woz is explored to any degree, and even then only superficially. And though Jobs' impatience and mood swings are on display, an impulsive telephone call to Bill Gates still comes as a shock because of the dearth of evidence of what makes the man tick.
Few moments could have affected Jobs more than getting ousted from the company he built, and yet there's little shown to reveal how it changed him. An ever-shifting wardrobe, from Birkenstocks to three-piece suits to beltless jeans, accompanied by the strains of Bob Dylan and Joe Walsh, does much of the work of explaining his state of mind.
"Jobs" at least deserves credit for attempting a warts-and-all depiction of the mercurial businessman. The film's two-dimensional approach, however, is perhaps best evidenced when Jobs gets frustrated while listening to Toad the Wet Sprocket on his portable compact disc player and chucks the clunky device into the trash. It's a cute scene that hints at what motivated Jobs professionally. There's just precious little insight into the personal journey.
(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
(Editing by Reynolds Holding and Martin Langfield)