jOBS: Sundance Review

jOBS Kutcher - P 2013
A biopic that’s perhaps too respectful of the tech icon’s innovations still remains frequently engaging.

Ashton Kutcher stars as the legendary inventor and entrepreneur who converted a generation of computer users to Apple products.

PARK CITY -- Playing rather like a two-hour commercial covering the first 20 tumultuous years of Apple’s development, Joshua Michael Stern’s biographical look Steve Jobs is a passably entertaining account of the career of one of the 20th century’s great innovators that breaks no new stylistic ground and hews closely to the public perception of the tech giant. Open Road will release jOBS nationwide April 19 to mark Apple’s 37th anniversary. The three-month marketing push began at Sundace and positive word-of-mouth could turn out more viewers than just the faithful and curious. International sales are a given considering Apple’s global reach.

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Selecting a biography's starting point is always a critical decision for both content and pacing, and debuting screenwriter Matt Whiteley identifies Jobs’ (Ashton Kutcher) early-'70s Reed College education -- cut short when he drops out shortly after enrolling -- as the first critical juncture in his later career. Art classes, meditation, LSD trips and travel to India all contribute to Jobs’ brief higher-education experience, leading to a job with pioneering video game manufacturer Atari in Silicon Valley.

Jobs and self-taught computer engineer Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) co-found Apple Computer to manufacture the Apple I computer kit in the former's parents’ Los Altos garage. They soon follow up with the Apple II, one of the first consumer-market personal computers to include a video display, released in 1977 with funding from entrepreneur and former Intel engineer Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney).

Jobs focuses on advancing the platform, eventually launching the Macintosh computer in 1984 after having taken the company public four years earlier at the incredibly reasonable IPO price of $22 a share. The offering makes Jobs and Wozniak instant multi-millionaires, though it cuts into some of Apple’s key original employees.

An internal feud with CEO John Scully (Matthew Modine) sparks Job's departure from Apple in 1985 and the start-up of the computer hardware and software manufacturer NeXT. By then, Wozniak also had left Apple. As the company falters with various unsuccessful research and manufacturing projects in the late-'80s, Apple brings Jobs back as an adviser and eventually makes him CEO.

Stern wraps up the movie at this climactic point, with Jobs again directly associated with the brand he established and on the cusp of introducing the line of “i” computers, communications devices and entertainment products now so familiar to consumers.

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By accentuating the sweet spot that combines the Apple origin story with the drama inherent in Jobs’ struggles to grow and maintain control of his company, Whiteley and Stern get a good return on their investment but at the expense of some important details, including Jobs' initial introduction to Wozniak and any specifics about Woz's personal history. As the two are developing the first Apple computers, the omission of any discussion about the operating-system software needed to run the machines also is puzzling.

While the emphasis remains on Jobs’ career, the film also touches on some less-than-savory aspects of his personal life, including his rejection of pregnant girlfriend Chrisann Brennan and repudiation of his daughter Lisa in his early 20s. And jOBS doesn’t gloss over the man's reputation for unwavering perfection, direct speech and tempermentalism.

In his first produced script, screenwriter Whiteley -- director of marketing content at producer Five Star Films’ parent company -- exhibits a tendency to accord too much deference to his subject, thereby sacrificing the critical perspective and complexity that better-developed supporting characters could provide.

Stern’s directing style represents an extension of this reverential approach, bathing Jobs’ early years in a pervasive golden hue while shifting the blocking in later scenes to emphasize Jobs at all costs. Camera setups and shot selections are functional but tend to be fairly static, sacrificing a sense of dynamism.

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Kutcher has the intitial advantage of a reasonable resemblance to Jobs, but goes beyond this to faithfully re-create some of his man's physical mannerisms. He manages a fair imitation of Jobs’ speaking style as well, particularly when delivering a number of monologues and often while haranguing his employees or board of directors. Gad could have profitably been given more to do in the Wozniak role, particularly since the many boardroom scenes might seem repetitive.

Mulroney and Modine are adequate in the other significant supporting roles but don't have much to do aside from offering foils for Jobs’ ambitions. Production designer Freddy Waff and composer John Debney conspire to lend authenticity with suitable period details and music, well-modulated to each new period of Jobs’ career.

The filmmakers do fall into the trap of overly sentimentalizing a widely beloved public figure who represents an enormous cultural significance. At the same time, however, they keep the movie frequently engaging, an indication of their studious dedication to the project about a man who arguably changed the habits and communication methods of the world's population more than any other.