Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Jobs

Alternate Title:  Citizen J

One sentence synopsis:    Steve Jobs rises, falls, and rises again, alongside his company, Apple Computer.


Things Havoc liked:  Ashton Kutcher and I have never gotten along. For one thing, I can't tell him and Josh Hartnett apart, and for another thing, nothing he's ever done interested me in the slightest. I don't watch Two and a Half Men or Punk'd, stoner movies like Dude, Where's My Car are entirely wasted on me, and I thought The Butterfly Effect was a mediocre, sloppy mess, aping better metaphysical films such as Being John Malkovich without understanding how to make them work. Still, actors with worse resumes than Kutcher's have salvaged their careers with a single mindblowing biopic, and while I was surprised to see one about Steve Jobs appear so shortly after his demise, my status as an old-time Apple fanboy more or less required that I see this film.

It's no secret that among the very strange denizens of Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs was one of the strangest. Abandoned by his birth parents and adopted by new ones, a dropout of Reed College (one of my Alma Mater's rivals), and a follower of everything from homeopathy to eastern religions to fruitarianism, Jobs combined two attributes that would seem contradictory: An instinctual genius for business, creative design, and managerial inspiration, and a seemingly absolute lack of basic human empathy. If the movie gets nothing else right, it gets this fundamental dichotomy nailed down pat. Though some of the obligatory "inspiring speeches" fall a bit flat, the film gets across Jobs' single-minded obsession with design, style, and user-friendliness, a concept which doesn't sound revolutionary today only because he singlehandedly pounded that obsession into the entire computer industry. Yet Jobs, according to this film, did not act on these obsessions because he knew it was the right business move, but because of some sort of deep-seated need to produce things in accordance with his vision, whether buyable or not. We watch Jobs arguing with his business partners and investors and venture capital firms about whether the massive overruns and investments he is making into products from the Lisa to the Macintosh will pay off, but all along we get the sense that Jobs is making excuses, covering up his own obsessions with design, irrespective of the soundness of his decision making. This enables his struggles with the board to take on a slightly more real cast, rather than simply having unthinking stodgy suits fail to get his 'vision'.

Of course the same effect is helped by the fact that Jobs is an unlikeable asshole from the beginning of the film to the end of it. I had wondered how the movie would handle the uncomfortable reality of Jobs' Larry-Ellison-sized ego and Dr-House-class indifference to human behavior or standards of propriety. Many movies or television shows (I cite House again) have the distressing tendency to present a massive dickhead to us and then attempt to justify his behavior towards everyone by virtue of his genius. Jobs does the opposite, showing how Steve Jobs' total inability to empathize with people, even his closest friends and associates, drives each of them away, one by one. This is not merely the usual 'movie' version of an asshole, who calls out the pretensions of the 'designated bad guys' in an impolite manner. An early scene has Jobs call his friend Steve Wozniak in to help him with a technical matter and then outright lie to him about the compensation they are due to receive, while another has him reject and even throw his pregnant girlfriend out of his house, blaming the pregnancy on her and refusing to take any responsibility for it. As the movie goes on we see him coldly toss old friends to the curb once they can no longer promote his career, going out of his way to deny them the fruits of their labors, and generally acting as though he doesn't know them any longer. Portraying Jobs (who was indeed this big of an asshole) in this way is probably the only decision that would have worked, as it means that when the sparks at Apple begin to fly, and Jobs is forced to confront the Board of Directors and his own CEO, his abusive personality turns these scenes from "stuffy dicks oppress counter-cultural rebel" to "reasonable men trying to deal with a certifiable sociopath before he destroys the company." Not everything Jobs touched was gold, nor was his every move the right one, and his "triumph", upon returning to Apple, immense though it was (he turned a failing company into the most valuable one on Earth), is marred, ultimately, by the score-settling and pettiness that marks him through the entire film.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Josh Gad plays Steve Wozniak like the geeky computer nerd he was (and is, something I can confirm personally), while major figures in Apple's rise and fall, such as CEO John Scully (of the famous 1984 commercial) and Apple Board president Arthur Rock are played respectively by Matthew Modine and the always-awesome J. K. Simmons. Both of them bring a certain veneer of sanity to their roles steadfastly lacking in Jobs, as mentioned before. But the main event is, of course, Kutcher himself, who looks a near dead-ringer for Steve Jobs, and plays him with just the right combination of madness and inspiration. This is the sort of performance that alters the trajectory of careers, one that will at least get me to look a bit closer at Kutcher the next time I see him.



Things Havoc disliked: It was probably unavoidable for this movie to turn into an extended Apple commercial at times. We are dealing with a biopic about the man who built Apple from the ground up twice, after all, and moreover a man famous for the "Reality Distortion Field" (to quote Andy Hertzfeld) that surrounded him as he spoke on issues of design, excellence, and quality. Bereft of the field, however, some of Jobs' speeches sound rather like generic corporate bloviations on "commitments to excellence" (is there any company in the world that has a 'commitment to mediocrity'?). A particular sequence near the end of the film where the returned Jobs asks iMac designer Johnathan Ive why he's at a company that has deprecated style and design so much, sounds like the sort of thing I would have said back in my High School years when I was an unabashed fanboy who thought Apple could do no wrong. Apple was and remains (for the present) a trendsetter among technology companies, visionary in design and product beyond the scope of 99.9% of its peers. It does not follow, however, that whimsy and creative freedom are the sole supports of its success. After all, we all know how well "Design is Law" worked for John Romero...

The film also has a very strange sense of scope. The movie ends (spoiler alert) in 1997, with the iMac on the horizon and Jobs re-instated as CEO of Apple. All well and good, but Jobs' greatest triumph, arguably, is what he did after that point, taking a broken, marketless organization in free-fall and turning it into a company more valuable than Exxon-Mobile. Ending the film there shortchanges the actual genius of Jobs, as the iMac is barely in the film, the iPod gets a cameo appearance, and the iPhone is totally unseen. Perhaps the assumption was that everyone knows how the story ends (which is probably true), but this is not the only gap in the film's account of Jobs' life. Following his fall from grace at Apple, the movie abruptly shifts ten years ahead, to when Jobs was approached by Gil Amelio (Kevin Dunn) to resume a role at Apple. Unfortunately, when we last left Jobs he was a single, broken man, thrown out of his company and doomed at last by his own tragic flaws, the ones that drove away his friends and supporters, until he had nothing. All of a sudden, Jobs is married, has children, and is even taking care of the daughter from his previous relationship, the one he previously refused to have anything to do with or even sign visitation papers for, dismissing her as irrelevant to his life. The Steve Jobs we've gotten to know would do none of these things, indeed the movie spends a great deal of time establishing the particular fact that he would not do them, and yet we are now, suddenly, shown a Steve Jobs whose personal life is in order and his relationships fully repaired, all without a hint as to how this miracle was accomplished. To put the question mildly, what the hell happened?



Final thoughts:   Elementary flaws like this, done no doubt for the best of reasons, are what keep Jobs from being a great film. The great biopics of film's history, Ghandi, Patton, even Citizen Kane (yes), dug into the lives of their subjects to extract a narrative story from them. They did not simply recount their lives in the fashion of "this happened, then that happened", but strove to find order within the chaos of an actual human life so as to tell a story worth telling. To an extent, Jobs tries to do this, by portraying Steve Jobs as a classical tragic hero, whose flaw encompasses his own destruction, at least until he can rise again). But between the destruction and rebirth must come a change, and whether because of poor editing decisions, or an attempt to cover over the fact that Steve Jobs really didn't mend his evil ways over those missing ten years, this film leaves us wondering if the projectionist forgot to include a reel.

Still, Steve Jobs was a sufficiently influential and iconic person as to merit a film like this, and hopefully, the upcoming one from Aaron Sorkin will deal with him in an equally interesting manner. Kutcher's work, as well as that of the rest of the actors, is stellar, and the movie does not pull any punches out of reverence or narrative convenience as to the real Jobs' shortcomings. It may not be an instant classic, but if you're at all interested in what made the world's greatest computer salesman tick, then you could do far worse than this as a starting point.

Final Score:  6.5/10

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