Movie review

‘Jobs’ proves too big a task for Ashton Kutcher

Tech-savvy actor wowed Israel when he visited in May; his new movie role, as larger-than-life Apple founder Steve Jobs, is likely to win fewer plaudits

Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs (photo credit: Courtesy)

On his visit to Israel in May, Ashton Kutcher wowed an Israeli audience of over 1,000 with his savvy, his start-up wisdom, and his knowledge of the Israeli tech world. While most of the world knows Kutcher as a (largely) comedic actor, many Israelis were impressed with his ideas on how to build a start-up and make money out of it — something he has already done several times.

It’s unlikely they will be as impressed next week, when his new movie, “Jobs,” opens at theaters around the country. (It opens in the US this week.)

The titular Jobs, of course, is Steve, the late founder of Apple Computers (he died in 2011, at age 56) and the driving force behind the world’s most successful consumer devices. Kutcher was tasked with portraying a man who was truly larger than life. Unfortunately, it appears that the role was larger than Kutcher, too.

When he introduced the film at the Sundance Festival earlier this year, Kutcher called playing the role of Jobs “the most terrifying thing I have done in my life.” It shows.

Ashton Kutcher with Israeli high-tech guru Yossi Vardi, in Tel Aviv in May 2013 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ashton Kutcher with Israeli high-tech guru Yossi Vardi, in Tel Aviv in May 2013 (photo credit: Courtesy)

It’s said that Kutcher practiced walking like Steve Jobs for three months in order to capture the particular gait of Apple’s head. In the film, the actor has plenty of opportunity to show off his walking skills (striding through the Apple offices, college campuses, and the streets of Silicon Valley). But where Jobs’s gait was natural, even delicate, Kutcher tries too hard, and his deliberate hulking stride goes far beyond the master’s manner. You’d think Kutcher had been practicing for a role in the next “Planet of the Apes” remake.

It’s a bit of a disjointed gait, too, and that’s a good metaphor for the film as a whole. Not that Kutcher is to blame for the movie’s episodic vibe. It’s not even the fault of the director (Joshua Michael Stern) or the writer (Matt Whitely). Well, maybe a little; maybe they should have realized that to tell the tale of a life as rich with events and nuance as Jobs’s was, even two hours and seven minutes wasn’t going to cut it. But Kutcher and company soldier on — with the star trying, as with his Jobs-walk, perhaps a little too hard.

Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs (photo credit: Courtesy)

After introducing us to Jobs, the genius, as he presented the iPod to employees in 2001, the biographical narrative goes back to Steve’s hippie-ish phase, when he dropped out of his alma mater (Reed College) and out of the daily buzz of life to take up a form of Buddhism (or was it Hinduism? The movie never says, and the Internet is of two minds about it).

It was a crowded period in Steve’s life and, to give us as much material as possible, the film (here and in other places) resorts to a kaleidoscopic brew of images, micro-scenes, and clips, melded together. It’s a way to get a lot of context in quickly to move the plot along, but it’s also an example of the stuttering film’s style; you get no more than a general idea of what Steve is supposed to be thinking and feeling from these scenes, although in the best (or not) traditions of method acting, Kutcher tries to makes sure we know what’s going on in Steve’s head as he scowls, smiles, laughs, and cries — with emphasis — at the emotionally appropriate moment. For the business shark Jobs is made out to be in the film, he sure wears his heart on his sleeve.

Life is short, especially when you have lots of computers to design and consumer products to invent, and the story moves rapidly through Jobs’s stints at Atari and his initial work at what would become Apple Computers with his longtime tech pal Steve Wozniak, along with other assorted friends and associates whom Jobs would later screw out of Apple stock because they didn’t measure up to his notions of perfection.

Jobs’s “attitude” is front and center as Kutcher earnestly depicts the Apple chief’s take-no-prisoners business policies. Loyalty is a concept Jobs seemed to have a hard time with, and his shark-like business persona establishes him as a real jerk. In the best Hollywood-cliché style, his buddy Woz (Wozniak) says, as he tells Steve that he’s had enough of him and his head games, that Jobs has “changed,” and that he was now in it “for the money,” unlike the early days when they built computers in Jobs’s adoptive parents’ garage “for fun.” Indeed cliché is how the film tries to establish who the good guys and the bad guys are — another sign that the crew here is in over their heads.

In truth, it was never about “the fun” for Jobs, who from the film’s first scenes is portrayed as a Me-Decade, me-first kind of guy, who thinks nothing of seducing a girl, dropping her, and stealing her LSD. That same jerkiness shows up later on in a key scene where he denies the paternity of his daughter, whom he bans from his life. But later on, we see a domesticated Steve, with a wife and son — and in a relationship with his formerly banned daughter. Where, when and how did he change? The film doesn’t let on.

Steve Jobs shows off the white iPhone 4 at the 2010 Worldwide Developers Conference (photo credit: Matthew Yohe/Wkipedia commons)
Steve Jobs shows off the white iPhone 4 at the 2010 Worldwide Developers Conference (photo credit: Matthew Yohe/Wkipedia commons)

The abrupt transition from jerk to decent dad again underlines the unsatisfyingly episodic nature of the story told here. We keep seeing snippets of Steve’s life, whether it’s his struggles with his boards of directors, his work at NeXT (the company he established after getting booted out of Apple), inspiring talks and mean putdowns of employees, and a thousand other details. But the whole is less than the sum of all these parts. If only the film had picked a few, concentrating on one of the many Steves we meet — Steve the sharp businessman, Steve the nasty friend, Steve the focused tech geek, Steve the savior of Apple after the company was on the skids in the late ’90s. Any one of these stories would have made a powerful film by itself. But together, it’s a big blur, and it’s Kutcher’s hulking gait that is all one really remembers the next day.

When Kutcher preached his start-up philosophy last May in Tel Aviv, the entire room stood up and applauded him for five minutes. At the Israeli press screening of Jobs, the movie, there was nary a clap to be heard at the film’s conclusion. Clearly, Israelis prefer Kutcher in person, living his own cool Hollywood tech life, to Kutcher clunking through a life that’s too big for him.

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