"Jobs," a biopic about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, gets the look right in its production design and its casting, a point underlined by a film-capping photo album that compares the actors to their real-life counterparts. But even Jobs, a dedicated aesthete, knew looks weren't everything.
Ashton Kutcher plays Jobs, and the resemblance is indeed striking. Joshua Michael Stern's film, scripted by Matt Whitely, takes us from 1974 -- when college dropout Jobs was still auditing classes at Reed College -- to 2001 and the introduction of the iPod. After the early scenes of Reed and of Jobs' trip to India, the film settles into the tech-happy Bay Area: Stanford, where Jobs and partner Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) unveiled a "personal computer" prototype; Los Altos, where the tiny, initial Apple crew began assembly in the Jobs family garage; and Cupertino, home to the eventual Apple campus.
Faced with almost three decades of complicated history, "Jobs" does a fair job of telling the story of Apple and conveying something of what made its co-founder unique. The film establishes Jobs' creativity, drive and business savvy as (after languishing at Atari) he gooses Wozniak into partnership, wills Apple into existence and enlists angel investors -- most importantly, Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney).
Jobs espouses a risk-means-reward philosophy and pushes innovation by demanding his partners and employees to "think different" (though the script never uses that phrase) and achieve the seemingly impossible. Stern doesn't shy from portraying Jobs' bullying side and his moral failings, including his longtime refusal to acknowledge his daughter and his capricious, cutthroat boxing out of anyone who might pose a threat, financial or otherwise, to him or the future of Apple.
Sensing the potential dryness of a story dominated by tech innovation and boardroom drama, Stern milks the personal conflicts and emotional outbursts (every half hour, tears roll down someone's cheek) for all they're worth. But what's more interesting here are the tech innovation and boardroom drama: Jobs' shrewd negotiation and erratic but ultimately effective and inspiring management style. It's really a story of pitches and pep talks, though John Debney's score unnecessarily swells to convince us of the import of every Apple product launch.
What "Jobs" misses, despite the early passages of acid-tripping and guru-meeting, is a full exploration of Jobs' not-uncomplicated spiritual and moral development. The final act, set in 1996, does depict a somewhat mellowed Jobs, who has surprised even himself by becoming a family man. But Whitely and Stern end their story before Jobs experiences the mortal humbling of cancer and, with it, an acceleration of self-reflection.
Like the film around it, Kutcher's performance is a mixed bag. He's consistently outacted by his scene partners (Mulroney, in particular, does a lot with a little). And though Kutcher functions fine when called upon to be charismatic, and he's mostly convincing in repose, he doesn't have the control to finesse Jobs' loping walk or convincingly portray his flashes of anger or intensity. That these moments are capable of raising laughter from audiences does immeasurable damage to the film.