Steve Jobs was an innovator.
The man behind the iPod, iMac and one of the enduring beacons of the tech industry hasn’t been gone five years and Hollywood’s already on their second biopic about the enigmatic and fractured genius.
Two years ago, an independent feature with actor/model/Jobs-lookalike Ashton Kutcher as the Apple co-founder was released to little fanfare and critical derision despite a solid effort done in quick turnaround following Jobs’ death.
Recently, a much more ballyhooed film that focuses on key moments in his industrial years, “Steve Jobs,” arrived in theaters much to the delight of national critics and to the general shrugs of the general public.
Since the Kutcher version is — in essence — Intro to Jobs 101, this year’s effort is Jobs 401, designed to be a master class for those seeking to explore the complexities of a man that even his closest friends couldn’t completely relate to or understand.
It’s in this realm that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who spearheaded the film, and director Danny Boyle attempt to wade into previously tread waters with a movie that feels like what might have happened had Jobs made the biopic himself.
“Steve Jobs” is dazzlingly brilliant when it feels like it; painfully unaware of or brazenly antagonistic about how obtuse it becomes at times; visually appealing in an artistic sense and a film that leaves audiences scratching their heads wondering what the heck just happened.
Unlike Jobs the man, “Steve Jobs” the movie doesn’t really care much for how the general public will consume the film. Sorkin and, to a lesser extent, Boyle go out of their way to make “Steve Jobs” sardonic and un-relatable, making grandiose assumptions about how much people know about Jobs’ history heading into the film.
Sorkin — who was probably nominated for an Academy Award for this film when it was announced he would be penning the screenplay back in May 2012 — dominates “Steve Jobs” from the opening seconds until the closing credits without ever appearing once on screen.
His script utilizes the same three-act structure as Quentin Tarantino’s far superior “Inglourious Basterds,” highlighting three specific events in time and using each as a tent pole of the film, with product launches for the Macintosh in 1984, the NEXT Cube in 1988 and the iMac in 1999 as inciting incidents for “Steve Jobs.”
Sorkin’s screenplay comes off more like a theatrical play — and would probably be far better off as one — with Jobs lobbing verbal grenades back and forth with nearly everyone he comes into contact with on screen.
For as much as he is revered by the technology-minded masses, the Jobs character written on the page for talented character actor Michael Fassbender to play is neither hero nor anti-hero, but comes across largely as the endearing villain that audiences await to reform.
It should come as no surprise that the former Apple employees who consulted with Sorkin on the script — co-founder Steve Wozniak, former Apple CEO John Scully, tech expert Andy Hirtzfeld — come across as sympathetic.
Structurally, the film is geared as Jobs-centric, with scenes, characters and even the camera to a large extent circling Jobs like planets to the Sun. It’s an innovative way of storytelling that we’ve seen before with last year’s Best Picture winner “Birdman,” though Best Director winner Alejandro González Iñárritu pulls off the task much better than Boyle, who largely takes a backseat to Sorkin’s script and the actors’ performances.
Fassbender does yeoman’s work carrying the heavy burden of both being the iconic title character and bearing the weight of the film on his shoulders. But as Jobs believes in the film that he is the conductor and everyone else around him are the musicians playing the tunes, in the world of “Steve Jobs,” Sorkin is the conductor with Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels and even director Boyle just strumming along to his tune.
Winslet and Daniels are solid in their performances as Apple marketing head Joanna Hoffman and Scully, respectively, though neither give Oscar-worthy efforts in spite of seemingly inevitable nominations.
The film’s biggest outlier — perpetual stoner actor Seth Rogen — is an oddball choice even for a film filled with eccentricities. Following the lead of his “Freaks and Geeks” brethren James Franco and Jonah Hill, Rogen delves into serious, heady drama with full gusto, but at no point in time does Rogen melt away into the world of Wozniak long enough to make viewer forget the guy from “Knocked Up” is on screen. Hill’s recent successes in “Moneyball” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” help give insight as to why Sorkin and Boyle chose Rogen for the role, but they would have been much better off casting Hill himself instead.
Katherine Waterston — daughter of “Law and Order” actor Sam Waterston — gives the film’s best performance as Chrisann Brennan, Jobs’ ex-lover and mother to Lisa, whom Jobs denied is his child.
In a film filled with big name actors playing much more compelling parts, Waterston shines as a woman struggling to make ends meet while the father of her child is one of the world’s richest men. She plays Chrisann with an undeniable vulnerability and draws the audience’s eyes to her despite Sorkin and Boyle’s insistence on a Jobs-centric film.
Waterston — along with Dakota Johnson’s limited, yet breathtaking work as ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s lover in “Black Mass” — helps cement the makings of a quality next generation of actresses focused on substance over style, continuing the path paved by Jennifer Lawrence in higher-profile films the last several years.
Seeking to be the iPhone of cinema, “Steve Jobs” is more like the NEXT Cube — innovatively designed without much underneath the surface. It’s also a film that insists upon itself, where viewers feel burdened to appreciate the film more because of its cast and subject matter.
“Steve Jobs” has the makings of a significantly better film than it actually is, though a nuanced screenplay and solid performances will likely make it an awards contender early next year.
While worth checking out, audiences shouldn’t be breaking down the doors or waiting in line for hours on end as if it were the iPhone-equivalent the filmmakers hoped “Steve Jobs” would be.