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Sundance Review: Ashton Kutcher Does A Solid Steve in ‘jOBS,’ But Is This Tame Biopic a Lost Cause From the Start?

Sundance Review: Ashton Kutcher Does A Solid Steve in 'jOBS,' But Is This Tame Biopic a Lost Cause From the Start?

The first scene of “jOBS” plays like an Apple commercial. Set in 2001 at an Apple town hall meeting, the introductory sequence finds company visionary Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) addressing staffers by revealing the first edition of the iPod. With John Debney’s symphonic score emboldening Jobs’ optimistic delivery, the man describes the iPod as “a tool for the heart” and the room applauds. The lack of irony borders on the creepy.

From there, ‘jOBS’ relates the three decades leading up to that triumphant moment, revealing the ups and downs of Jobs’ career trajectory with a less rosy perspective. The tone, however, remains oddly consistent: Jobs may barrel forward at the expense of nearly everyone around him, but even while portraying Jobs’ ruthless streak, director Joshua Michael Stern maintains a worshipful perspective of his famous subject. The movie is constantly at war with attempts to provide an honest portrayal, almost as if its subject were reaching beyond the grave to steer any negativity back in the direction of a hagiography.

Stylishly realized despite its unsophisticated storyline, “jOBS” has been shot by Russell Carpenter with brightly lit images that accentuate the eponymous innovator’s constant motivation. That achievement is complemented by Kutcher’s committed performance, certainly his most impressive turn in years, which conveys the character’s focused, manipulative intentions in each calculated look. But Matt Whiteley’s by-the-numbers screenplay, which tracks Jobs from his slacker days as a college dropout to the launching of Apple computers in his parents garage and eventual transformation into billionaire CEO, can’t keep pace. Shifting through bullet points of moments from Jobs’ life, the story maintains the subtleties of a made-for-TV movie and relates an origin tale with a superficiality one could obtain through a cursory browsing of Jobs’ Wikipedia page.

More problematic, however, is that the movie can’t get a handle on how to portray its subject:  An early scene set in 1974 finds him dropping acid with his college buddies and recalling a soul-searching trip around the world, hinting at his mounting desire to make his presence count. Moments later, he’s a disgruntled Atari employee throwing fits at his co-workers. “I just can’t work for other people,” he sighs. Less about ideas than ego, this Jobs quickly transitions into the shrewder businessman who joins forces with faithful buddy Steve Wozniak (an enjoyably frumpy Josh Gad) to develop the first home computer for local retailers. Discovered and inexplicably embraced by investor Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), Jobs’ commitment starts to pay off at the cost of his private life.

That’s where things really go awry. It’s hard to stay invested in this light overview of Apple’s history when the screenplay fails to make the human element count, and Jobs’ domestic spat with his ex-girlfriend Julie (Amanda Crew) lays bare the soapy nature of the material. “Steve!” she shouts. “You used to write me poetry!” His response is to bawl.

The same underwritten immaturity comes out in the movie’s portrayal of Jobs’ brusque managerial style: Flustered when he sees the first Microsoft computer, he orders, “Get me Bill Gates on the line!” and then engages in a one-sided phone spat with vulgar histrionics that might read better on the page than they sound. The world knows the iconography of both men too well for this rudimentary exchange to be taken seriously; most of “jOBS” suffers from a similar distracting tendency.

As the story moves along, an energetic, period-specific soundtrack carries us us through the seventies and eighties. “jOBS” follows the company’s evolution into a massively successful operation vying for marketplace dominance against IBM and failing to the point where the board of directors attempt to push the founder out of the equation. The historical details are basic enough to appreciate each development on an academic level alone. If you accept the movie’s inherent cheesiness, it does hold interest as a rudimentary survey of Apple’s rise (even though Wozniak has disputed its assertion that Jobs was the consumer-oriented of the pair).

Stern tackles the subject with a bland sincerity at odds with the more complex undulation of relationship dynamics that Jobs shares with his friends and coworkers. Not unlike his past directing credit “Swing Vote,” the filmmaker attempts a tricky balance between cynicism and uplift, but the fusion never happens. It’s the cinematic equivalent of watching Apple’s infamous beach ball of death spin endlessly as we wait for a grand takeaway that simply isn’t there.  

As a whole, the movie inevitably suffers from comparison to “The Social Network,” another recent biopic about cutthroat tech innovators that’s superior in every way. The David Fincher-directed movie burrowed inside the essence of competitive young brilliance and triumphantly explored how inspired minds engage in endless competition. “jOBS” renders the same forces through the Apple founder’s ongoing persistence without a modicum of depth. “We gotta risk everything,” Jobs tells his team early on. The movie could have taken that advice; the problem with “jOBS” is that it plays too safe.

Criticwire grade: C+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? One of the more tolerable closing night films at the Sundance Film Festival in recent memory, “jOBS” opens nationwide through Open Road Films on April 19. The interest around the project, its subject matter and Kutcher’s fame bode well for its short-term commercial prospects.

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