Thursday, August 15, 2013

Skimming through Steve Jobs's life

Ashton Kutcher isn't bad, but this bio-pic doesn't dig deep.
Put expectation aside, Ashton Kutcher's not bad as Steve Jobs. But Jobs -- the movie about the late icon's rise in the world of business -- is to biography what skimming is to reading, a gloss rather than a deeply revealing look.

What's missing from this uptempo view of Jobs's life has less to do with a refusal to portray Jobs's darker side than with a deficiency of interpretive thrust, the kind of spin that could have lifted the movie out of a familiar, bio-pic groove.

Director Joshua Michael Stern sticks pretty close to the surface, tracing events in Jobs's life and charting the sometimes precarious rise of Apple, the company that's credited with changing the way we compute, make phone calls, listen to music, take photos and use apps for purposes that range from ridiculous to sublime.

In truth, Jobs is less a bio-pic than half of one.

The movie charts Jobs's life from his college days to the time when the ousted genius returned to Apple to guide the company to astonishing levels of success in the world of iPhones, iPods, iPads, as well as personal computers. It's arguable, that Jobs ends just when the best part of the story is starting.p>
To its credit, the movie doesn't attempt to white-wash Jobs: It offers abundant examples of Jobs's arrogance, his cruelty to subordinates, his refusal to acknowledge a daughter, his willingness to shortchange those who supported him early on, and his sense -- as one of the characters puts it -- that the world began and ended with him.

But rather than make a Citizen Jobs-like cautionary tale, Stern balances negatives with an equal number of positives: Jobs's unwillingness to settle for second best, his insistence on accomplishing what others deemed impossible and his commitment to changing lives with technology.

Early on, Stern employs a sketchy montage to show how Jobs toyed with an education at Reed College, dropped out of school, took acid trips, traveled to India and eventually landed a job with Atari, where he quickly established himself as iconoclastic but unpleasant personality. While at Atari, Jobs relied on hardware whiz and pal Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) to help build his reputation as a tech genius.

Jobs and Woznaik started Apple in Jobs's parents garage, and -- as the saying goes -- the rest is history.

Much of the movie is devoted to corporate intrigue within Apple, which outgrew its humble origins once it expanded into its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters. The company went public, acquired stockholders, a board of directors and eventually hired CEO John Sculley (Matthew Modine), a skilled marketer who found himself at odds with Jobs's idiosyncratic approach.

Jobs evidently behaved like a movie director who wasn't about to let a little thing like budget stand in the way of his vision.

Kutcher looks a lot like the young Jobs, and the supporting cast does reasonably good work with Dermot Mulroney portraying Mike Markkula, the first outsider to sink major money into Apple.

Though briskly paced, Jobs offers little or nothing by way of breakthrough filmmaking, and it can play like a compilation of greatest hits from Jobs's already well-chronicled career: How he named the company, how he developed the Macintosh computer line and how he made the transition from a young man with counter-cultural interests to a Silicon Valley titan.

If Jobs hadn't made his mark with computers, the movie could have been a show-biz bio-pic about a temperamental star who annoyed lots of people and made oodles of money, but actually did what many other arrogant people couldn't: He delivered.

Listen, I'm an Apple guy. I'm writing this on an Apple computer, and I use other Apple products. I'm susceptible to the Apple glow. Apple makes it, and, yes, I tend to want it.

But Jobs could have been a far more insightful drama. The movie shows us a character who does plenty of acting out, but it does far too little digging in.

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