Jobs, Unzucked

08.16.13

Ashton Kutcher’s ‘Jobs’ Is Actually Not That Bad

Despite early criticism, Ashton Kutcher’s indie biopic about Steve Jobs isn’t as bad as everyone says. Rob Fishman on the actor's turtleneck turn.

Here’s to the sane ones. The snug fits. The conformists. The peacemakers. The square pegs wondering what’s all the fuss about those round holes.

For those of us Same Thinkers, Hollywood’s fascination of late with Silicon Valley is titillating. All that time whiled away on software, and rarely are we afforded a glimpse into the souls of those who manufacture it. The 2010 film The Social Network—to borrow a phrase popular with tech types—“opened the kimono” a bit on the industry. In that film, we met Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), a programming wunderkind who talked fast but sold his schoolmates out even faster. Of all the friends to be had on Facebook, its founder seemed the least appealing.

The screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, is now at work on his follow-up about the Apple visionary Steve Jobs. If Sorkin’s as-yet uncast protagonist at all resembles his last, filmgoers will surely harden in their distaste for our reigning technocracy, seen to be high on IQ and low on compassion. What with biographer Walter Isaacson’s characterization of his late subject—“frequently obnoxious, rude, selfish, and nasty to other people”—one worries how Jobs will play in Sorkin’s hands.

Between that hard place and Isaacson’s rock of a book Friday comes Jobs, Ashton Kutcher’s indie biopic. The film has been widely panned and dismissed. The Guardian’s Brian Moylan speculated that Jobs “would have taken a big steaming dump” on the picture. Apple co-founder Steven Wozniak has repeatedly disputed its veracity. Jobs, writes Mark Olsen, “feels curiously out of touch with its subject, both as a man and regarding his impact.”

And yet, despite its shortcomings, Jobs is not so bad as its critics insist. In fact, it’s not half-bad at all.

The film, directed by Joshua Michael Stern, spans the years between Jobs’s failed enrollment at Reed College and his triumphal return to Apple some 20 years later. Save for the opening scene, Kutcher is happily spared any Benjamin Button–style makeovers, instead reprising a look that comes naturally to him: the shaggy hair and hippie vests of That ’70s Show. This is not yet the Jobs of a hundred black turtlenecks.

The story gets off to clumsy start. Relevant backstory is condensed into a few lines of artless dialogue. Perambulating the college campus, “Steven” is implored by an unnamed professor, in a distracting cameo by James Woods, to stay in school. “I want to live the idea of art, not study it,” Kutcher’s Jobs replies.

Dropping acid soon after in a wheat field, as a Bach concerto crescendos, Jobs says aloud: “Who has a baby, then throws it away like it’s nothing?”

“Are you talking about your birth parents?” his girlfriend asks.

Where the movie hits its stride is where Steve Jobs found his: in the creation and growth of Apple Computers. Filmmakers secured the actual Los Altos garage where Jobs grew up. Led by the sweet, unassuming, and ingenuous Woz (Josh Gad), a scrappy team of engineers does their best to make soldering motherboards look cool. After an angel investor shows up at their doorstep (Dermot Mulroney, as a forgettable Mike Markkula), Jobs strides through the West Coast Computer Faire to introduce the groundbreaking Apple II.

As his character ages, Kutcher’s performance becomes more convincing than contrived. He certainly looks the part, nailing the Frankenstein gait, dexterous gestures, and California twang (Kutcher enlarges on his process here). Though he dons a jacket and tie, Jobs is never quite one of the suits—here, as in The Social Network, the stated enemy—at one point leveling an accusatory finger at Apple CEO John Sculley (Matthew Modine) and barking: “Hiring you was the worst mistake I ever made!”

When Jobs’s spending spirals out of control, the suits have their revenge. Sculley, Markkula, and the company’s board arrange an ouster that strips Jobs of his power. “I felt like I’d been punched, the air knocked out of me, and I couldn’t breathe,” Steve Jobs told Isaacson years later. By then, Woz has resigned, and Jobs is estranged from his girlfriend and their daughter together and is living in an unfurnished mansion, with only a poster of Albert Einstein watching over him.

Thus passes the first of two moments when someone on the board asks, “So what are we going to do?”

The second, moments later in Hollywood time, comes years after Jobs has left in disgrace, launched another company called NeXT, and then sold it back to Apple. In this new incarnation, Kutcher’s Jobs has considerably cooled, pensively touring Cupertino in a sweater vest. But despite the sheep’s clothing, it’s the same old wolf who fires Markkula, with Corleone-like retribution.

When the question is echoed this time, Jobs answers confidently: “We’re going to put a dent in the universe.”

So can you draw a straight line from Jobs to Zuckerberg—or are they Apples and oranges? There are certainly similarities. Messianic figures tower over the Tom, Dick, and Harrys who attend them, leaving behind a trail of equity-stripped bodies. Lawyers and businessmen swarm like gnats around the young geniuses, neither of whom has much patience for protocol. Nowhere in evidence on the sprawling campuses are women or people of color. Worse than when Zuckerberg e-smears a girlfriend, Job exiles his pregnant steady, and names his new computer model Lisa, for the daughter he refuses to acknowledge.

As an early boss at Atari complains, Jobs may be brilliant, but he’s also an asshole.

A widely shared article in The New Yorker recently, by George Packer, pointed out some of the hypocrisies endemic in Silicon Valley. As Joe Green, a Harvard classmate of Zuckerberg’s, told Packer: “People in tech, when they talk about why they started their company, they tend to talk about changing the world.”

Zuckerberg, or at least the narrow, shallow portrait painted of him in The Social Network, seems to embody that flimsy promise. What makes Jobs fun to watch is the comparative richness, the unbridled optimism, the decades-long breadth of Apple’s story. These aren’t photo filters he’s fashioning, but real, live pieces of hardware, the seven wonders of the modern era.

Perhaps the next leading man will do us one better. But if it’s only a caviling, cynical Steve Jobs that Sorkin brings to the big screen, he’ll have done our generation’s Edison a disservice. Say what you will about Kutcher’s Steve Jobs—but at the very least he does change the world.