If Steve Jobs had made movies, Jobs is the kind of thing he might have done: It aspires to be innovative while it strives to be accessible and user-friendly. Focusing on a crucial period of Jobs's life rather than offering the standard cradle-to-grave portrait, this tries to be a somewhat unconventional biopic, and even the choice of casting Ashton Kutcher—no one's first choice for a gripping dramatic actor—suggests an embrace of Jobs's "Think Different" mantra. Ultimately, though, Jobs gets tripped up by the same old biopic problems: it's too much of a greatest-hits overview, not enough of an incisive dive into its subject. You can sense a stronger, more interesting film in there that the filmmakers won't let out.
Directed by Joshua Michael Stern (Swing Vote) and written by first-timer Matt Whiteley, Jobs is a rather rosy portrayal of Jobs, who died in 2011 at the age of 56 from cancer. Admiration for its subject doesn't disqualify a biopic from being great, but the breezy, positive approach limits their ability to explain precisely what made the man so charismatic and celebrated even outside the tech industry. (After all, it's not as if people are pining to make a movie about Jobs's nerdy, buttoned-down rival Bill Gates.)
The movie spans Jobs's life from when he was a college dropout to his return to Apple in the 1990s after the company he helped found booted him in the mid-'80s. Consequently, Jobs possesses the typical rise-then-fall-then-rise-again biopic arc, with Kutcher playing the daydreaming, rudderless, slightly arrogant young man who, according to the movie, got the idea to move into technology thanks to taking some really good acid. (During that same sequence, Jobs gets teary thinking about the fact that he's adopted, providing the film with its flimsy, Rosebud-like explanation for his ambition.) Traveling from the late '70s to the mid-'80s, Jobs is like The Social Network and Moneyball in that it's a triumphant vision of how nerds conquered the world.
Surrounded by lovable geeks like right-hand man Steve Wozniak (a very appealing Josh Gad), Jobs sees a future in which the personal computer will be a staple in every home, ignoring the many potential investors who turn him down, thinking he's nuts. We see his perfectionism as well as his penchant to be an impatient leader who wants to inspire or browbeat those around him. Early on, we also see his willingness to shortchange his collaborators to slice a bigger piece of the pie for himself. Jobs was unquestionably a compelling, contradictory person, and Jobs shows glimpses of those contradictions, but on the whole the filmmakers don't have much curiosity about his failings, such as his initial insistence in his 20s that he couldn't be the father of his girlfriend's child. A stronger film would have provided a certain thoughtful ambivalence about the mix of drive, enthusiasm, salesmanship, callousness, and ego that fueled Jobs, but Jobs is content to just check off various boxes and move forward.
Kutcher hasn't done much dramatic acting in his career, and for a lot of people he's always going to be the goofball from Punk'd, That '70s Show and Dude, Where's My Car? He's no embarrassment as Jobs, though, mimicking the man's Frankenstein-with-a-bad-back lurching walk and resembling him physically and vocally pretty well. Kutcher suggests Jobs' man-child exuberance, and he's got the necessary charisma, but the innovator's fire and almost otherworldly magnetism are missing, and that's a crucial failing. Jobs is a little too polite to point out that to be the success he was, Jobs had to be a tyrant at times, and Kutcher's performance shies away from the necessary ugliness of many top innovators. Those iPods didn't come into being thanks to warm hugs and inspirational speeches, you know.
But that's not the only way in which Jobs seems unaware of the more intriguing story at its fingertips. Most biopics are about athletes, world leaders, or performers who defied the odds to make the world a better place, bringing social change or art to the masses in the process. Jobs's gift was to make gadgets desirable: the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPad. (And, let's not forget, Pixar may have never happened without him.) There's no question that he reshaped our lives with the technology he helped develop, but Jobs' success was also a corporate, materialistic one. In that way, Jobs could almost be seen as a new breed of biopic, one that gets us to cheer less for the individual than for a multi-billion-dollar company. That, of course, was Jobs' genius as well: he made Apple seem cool and insurgent at a time when corporations are widely viewed as evil, soulless, bottom-line-obsessed monstrosities. Jobs the marketer would have been thrilled by that portrayal of him and his company; the Jobs who insisted that his products always be thoroughly thought through would have been incensed by this movie's lack of curiosity.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.