'Steve Jobs'

Despite the hype, 'Steve Jobs' biopic is mostly a flop
FAILURE TO LAUNCH: A miscast lead and the overwrought dialog of Aaron Sorkin make 'Steve Jobs' more Newton than iPhone.

It had the most interesting approach to the life and legend of Steve Jobs. Thus the eponymous Aaron Sorkin/Danny Boyle film turns out to be the most disappointing of the three Jobs films released in the last 14 months. Steve Jobs' structure is tantalizing. If Nixon had six crises, Jobs (Michael Fassbender) has three, in this dramatic triptych acted out in real-time, and in authentic-to-the-era cinematography. The second act splits open to allow flashbacks of Jobs' parting ways with John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Apple's CEO from 1983-1993.

We see Jobs during the unveiling of the Macintosh in 1984, shortly after the airing of the Ridley Scott-directed Super Bowl commercial. The Orwellian ad is a bridge-burner for Jobs, who is both misunderstood by the board and mistrusted by Sculley. After Jobs is fired from Apple, he develops the NeXT. Secretly, Jobs and his head of marketing Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) understand that NeXT is a prototype more than a product. In the last segment, Jobs bequeaths the iMac to our world and enters high-tech Valhalla.

Sorkin and Boyle take this rigid superstructure and upholster it with an inner story of Jobs as a family man. Leading among Jobs' character flaws is the way he treated his daughter Lisa: first disputing her paternity in Time magazine, and later keeping both mother and child on a court-ordered pittance.

Steve Jobs' script uses the father-daughter conflict as a major point of entry, so Lisa (played by three different actresses, but precocious every time) is hanging around backstage during every product rollout. The film is all about what a mensch Steve Jobs wanted to be, deep down inside. Joanna seems as eager to remind the industry titan of the importance of fatherhood as she is to help move units. Winslet, who is better than the material, is scarcely recognizable in her highly-authentic '80s costuming of mushroom-shaped coiffure and oversized specs. The back and forth between Jobs and Joanna is modeled on the Cary Grant/Rosalind Russell rapport in His Girl Friday, and that's one fine model. But the way the script boils Joanna down, she's sort of a Jewish mom—providing stark contrast with Lisa's mom Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) who is portrayed as a new-age idler. I don't know how much Brennan got for the legal clearances, but one hopes it was a big sum. The script beats up on her.

If Seth Rogen is suitably teddy-bearish as Steve Wozniak, he gets to bite. "You can't code tell me what you do," the Woz shouts at his former partner.

But it's the lead that makes this biopic bizarre. Fassbender spares us few of Jobs' odd habits, such as his use of a toilet for a footbath, but the miscasting is unignorable. In Jobs, Ashton Kutcher turns out to have had more of the Zen of Steve Jobs, both in physical appearance and in stunning passive aggression.

The movie is a near nonstop argument. It's like going to a baseball game where everyone is a batter. Boyle is in thrall to every word, even anachronistic lines—such as a joke about The Horse Whisperer made 14 years before that movie was released. In The Social Network, David Fincher found oblique angles and sinister interiors for his material—there, Sorkin's wit was keen and his double-talk rang true. If Moneyball is one of the best baseball movies made, part of it is due to the way director Bennett Miller toured the concrete brutality of the Coliseum—nobody's idea of a field of dreams. If a director can break out of the boiler rooms Sorkin builds, it's easier to accept the conventions of his writing. For instance, the convention that there is no dialogue so petty that it can't be made urgent by someone shouting, "One minute! Let's go!"

Sorkin has got to the point that most scriptwriters arrive at: the point where the belief that there's no business like show business evolves into the belief that all businesses are like show business. Thus, the lack of negative space in Steve Jobs, and the backstage-movie ambience. In one scene, daughter Lisa describes the Judy Collins version of "Both Sides Now" as "regretful." That's the right word to describe the feelings of someone who bought a ticket for this.

Steve Jobs

R, 122 MIN

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