Early on in Jobs, after a self-satisfied, over-emphatic, and ultimately mood-setting intro, wherein the tech legend Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) unveils Apple’s 2001 triumph, the iPod, the proceedings flash back to 1974, when Jobs dropped out of Reed College but still hung around campus, living a boho life and popping in on the occasional class, often sans shoes. He’s seen roaming the quad and hitting on a random, pretty art student. “I like the idea of art, but I don’t have the necessary talent,” Jobs says to her. It’s a quote that’s utterly telling of this abysmal fact-based film, whose makers seem enamored with the concept of a Steve Jobs movie, but haven’t anything close to the chops that are needed to pull it off.
Steered by a lead actor and director, Joshua Michael Stern, who are both way out of their respective leagues, Jobs is excruciating, failing to entertain and all but pissing on its subject’s grave. Anyone who’s heard a single Steve Jobs speech knows that hubris wasn’t an undercurrent of the man’s demeanor; it was a constant characteristic. And yet, it was often balanced with the kind of humane spirit that transcended any contrived, podium-ready persona. Jobs can’t nail that balance to save its life, and while countless films have found ways to paint portraits of flawed geniuses, few have fumbled in their approaches as consummately as this one does.
It’s briefly refreshing to see this type of movie be so liberal with its key figure’s unflattering traits, and moreover, there’s great intrigue to the idea of exploring the truth of a man who may only be idolized because his inventions are in everyone’s pockets. But that’s not the sort of study Jobs achieves. Instead, it unwittingly strives to make you loathe the pioneer on whose creation you may very well be reading this review. Though contrasted against early, hurried bits of apparent, peaceful enlightenment, attained via everything from hits of acid to a trip to India (“The moment of your death is fixed,” a guru eerily intones), Jobs’s ample shortcomings arrive with a trickle and then a flood, the lies to girlfriend Chris (Ahna O’Reilly) and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) predating shrill office outbursts, ruthless layoffs, and profound self-interest. After bitterly denying that he’s the father of Chris’s child, and preaching to a lawyer the margins of error of paternity tests, Jobs caps off his refusal of contact with “I don’t have time!” And if anyone gets on Jobs’s bad side in the workroom, that person is liable to get a cartoonishly bloodthirsty earful. You don’t think pretty fonts are important? Then “get the fuck out!” Boring and repetitious, Jobs is basically a two-hour tug of war between its subject and everyone else, including co-workers like Daniel Kottke (Lukas Haas), backers like Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), and board members like Arthur Rock (J.K. Simmons), all of whom are immeasurably more likable.
And still, the movie tries to eulogize the icon all the same, aiming to curry audience favor in the most rudimentary ways. On the heels of scenes that see Jobs axe programmers and dick over his closest friends, the film will shuffle him to one pandering, applause-laden spiel after another, each of them accompanied by John Debney’s boisterous score, and, whether depicting a product reveal or simply a plan of the day’s duties, regarding Jobs as if he’s just made the water coolers dispense wine. (“Jesus,” one programmer says when being startled by Jobs. “No, it’s just Steve,” the preacher replies.) The film at least knows its hero was a brilliant salesman, and that his true gift was how to best deliver the work of many to the world, but its capacity for conveying that gift is laughably limited. Written by first-time screenwriter Matt Whiteley, Jobs hinges huge developments on the innovator’s lickety-split powers of seduction, which lack persuasiveness or plausibility, especially when channeled through Kutcher.
Reportedly hired because of his physical likeness to Jobs, Kutcher is in no way equipped to bear the dramatic burden this movie puts on him. Gruelingly sophomoric, the actor’s performance borders on the unwatchable—a cobbled-together and wildly misguided mess of exaggerated tics, outsized emotions, and distracting vocal inflections in the key of an SNL parody. Everything Kutcher does rings false, including the preposterous glares he adopts for Jobs’s “I mean business” face, the smugness he strains to clinch with an overcooked smirk, and the affected way in which he mimics Jobs’s bobbing gait. There’s an urge to point the finger at the filmmakers, who surely should have had more foresight when choosing their leading man, but it’s hard not to fault Kutcher as well, especially when an oft-insufferable performer like Gad, and a bit player like Giles Matthey, who appears in two scenes as designer Jonathan Ive, act circles around him.
It’s Matthey who gets the climactic line, “There’s no sex in computers anymore,” which is uttered amid Jobs’s pre-aughts return to Apple after having been ousted for his roguish ways. The quote is another jolt to the system, for among Stern’s innumerable directorial missteps, which also include a constant excess of camera angles that negate the tension they try to establish, is a glaring inability to make the computing world sexy, a fatal flaw in and of itself. Watch David Fincher’s The Social Network or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and you’ll want to run home and hack the planet. Watch Jobs, and you’ll want to stuff the nearest geek into a locker, if not your head into an oven. Irredeemably awful, this isn’t a biopic; it’s a disaster movie.