Saturday, August 17, 2013

Computer Stress: JOBS

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers and the man partially responsible for ushering in the age of the personal computer and introducing the iPod and iPad to the world, was a fascinating and multifaceted man. Those looking to turn his life into a film would have many interesting entry points. Just look at the page count of Walter Isaacson’s great 2011 biography of the man. A film could follow the exploits of the garage-based startup and the decades of business strategy that caused Apple to rise, fall, and rise again. A film could concern itself with the technical revolution itself, spinning a story of improvements and inspirations as well as clashes with competitors. A film could explore the personal struggles and infamously prickly personality of Jobs, digging into what made him tick while striving to illuminate his creative process. And yet in Jobs business strategy is flatly presented, tech specs are vague at best, inspiration is only mystified, and his personal life is perfunctory. The first Steve Jobs biopic to hit theaters is in some ways the worst of all possible Steve Jobs biopics.

There’s a certain amount of irony in a film about a man obsessed with getting small details exactly right getting small details largely wrong. I’m not talking about the details in facts of his life and the history of Apple Computers (which are in both cases certainly bent to form a more movieish telling), but on a fundamental storytelling level. Instead of exhibiting curiosity in the characters in the story as people, director Joshua Michael Stern and screenwriter Matt Whiteley present them as objects in a diorama, made up and dressed up to look as close to the real people as possible, but with little effort put into creating convincing interior lives. It’s all surface to watch Ashton Kutcher play Jobs as an intelligent, mercurial presence. He may change his gait and speaking patterns convincingly, but he’s only the Jobs we know from his press events and public persona. To see Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak (Apple’s co-creator) is to see a convincing impersonation. The two men have fine chemistry – they’re often fun to watch – and are quite good, but bring in their performances emotional truths the movie itself seems uninterested in locating.

It is the worst kind of biopic: bland. Give me a hit piece, an energetic condensed version, or a high-spirited hagiography over cautious and flavorless any day. At least that film would have a point of view. Jobs plays as a series of reenactments, purely expositional and transactional. Events seem inevitable and preordained as characters – even ones played by welcome character actors like Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Modine, J.K. Simmons, and Lesley Ann Warren – speak to each other as if writing themselves into the history books. As Jobs moves from the garage to the boardroom – the main narrative thrust being what got him there, what lost him the position, and what got him back there – the film is singularly uninterested in figuring out anything beyond the broad facts of his life. Oblique references to his parents, both biological and adopted, are dropped, as well as vague nods towards his relationships and children. But at least the business throughline gives some kind of reason to downplay his personal life. That the ball is dropped there as well, with so much screen time saying so little, is strange. The ins and outs of Apple Computers remain fuzzy, as if the filmmakers were afraid too much technical detail would lose the audience.

No movie can sum up a man’s life, but it’s a waste of time for a biopic to not even try to sum up part of it. Jobs is content to simply say, “Here is Steve Jobs and some things that happened in his life.” It knows he’s important and assumes we think so, too. But no work has gone into making this a dramatically or cinematically interesting representation. Jobs coasts on the context the audience brings along, unwilling to provide any insight or interest of its own. I knew we were in trouble from the opening scene, a reenactment of the reveal of the iPod. In Jobs’s trademarks black shirt and blue jeans, Kutcher looks and sounds the part, sometimes uncannily so, as he paces back and forth, delivering the actual words of the event. When he reveals the device, the camera practically trembles as it moves in for a close-up of the logo, the onlookers applauding and the orchestra swelling. It’s a moment of ecstatic fervor whipped up to say nothing more than that the iPod is cool. The technique in this scene is repeated with the unveiling of the Apple II and the Macintosh. Aren’t they cool? Yes, they are. But couldn’t, and shouldn’t, the film say more than that?

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