“Steve, you’re an asshole,” someone says early in Jobs, a point the film reinforces repeatedly over the course of its 122 minutes, as if to counter the inspirational music and dramatic monologues that riddle it. For (nearly) every yin of Ashton Kutcher’s Steve Jobs flashing a moment of brilliance, there’s a yang of someone saying he’s changed or is his own worst enemy. The unwritten, but understood, full title of Joshua Michael Stern’s film is Jobs: Brilliant Asshole.
Stern (Swing Vote) had his work cut out for him. Although his movie hits theaters first, it does so under the shadow of another, more anticipated biopic penned by Aaron Sorkin and based on Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Steve Jobs. Isaacson had Jobs’ full cooperation for the book, and Jobs professed to being a fan of Sorkin’s. On the other hand, Ashton Kutcher resembles Jobs, so there's that.
He doesn’t do a bad job. Kutcher clearly prepared for the role, but his capital-A acting distracts from some of his more dramatic scenes. He has the Apple founder’s onstage mannerisms down pat, though he walks with a lurching gait, has an intense stare that’s almost homicidal, and adopts a voice that sounds more like Steve Jobs via Owen Wilson. His co-star Josh Gad fares better, portraying Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak—the highest profile victim of Jobs’ maniacal single-mindedness—with tragic vulnerability.
There are many other important figures, but the script, by newcomer Matt Whiteley, barely has time even to mention them in passing, or offer much context for some of the seemingly big events happening onscreen. Aside from the opening scene of Jobs announcing the iPod to the Apple staff in 2001, the film stays deep in the past, moving from Jobs’ wayward college years to his early professional troubles to the first years of Apple. It ends with his return to the company in 1996, a decade after his ouster.
That brief scene with the iPod excepted, little in Jobs will register with people unfamiliar with the man’s story or Apple’s history pre-2001. Stern probably figures everyone knows that part of the story, but even seemingly important events from the past—like the failure of the Lisa computer and Jobs’ post-Apple company, Next—come and go with little explanation, save for the old “let news clips provide exposition” trick (or, alternately, the “out-of-nowhere voiceover from the protagonist explaining an important theme” one). People who have read Isaacson’s book can fill in the blanks, but everyone else may be left wondering.
Steve Jobs lived an extraordinary, complicated life that’s too much for any one film to capture. The first biopic to take a stab at it gets points for ambition, but ultimately feels like a made-for-TV movie mistakenly playing at the multiplex.