Limited by its own ambition, ‘Steve Jobs’ favors difference over quality

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“Steve Jobs” fails to follow through on an implicit bargain. The biopic is constructed with idiosyncratic rigidity, but its unusual three-act structure – which goes from product launch to product launch to product launch, spanning 14 years – eventually turns redundant. The film can’t help but slide into the overstuffed, underwhelming territory that it promises to avoid.

Though directed by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle, “Steve Jobs” is pure Aaron Sorkin. In the hands of the “Social Network” scribe, the film’s exterior of thunderous excitement only frames a taut behind-the-scenes narrative. Each of the three acts has Jobs (Michael Fassbender) in a panic, on the verge of unveiling his newest product – first, the Macintosh, then, the educational software NEXT, and finally, the iMac.

There are technological issues which force Jobs to bump heads with his engineer, Andy (Michael Stuhlbarg). His former partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) smiles dumbfounded in the background, always begging him to “mention the Apple 2 team” (Jobs always refuses). There’s also the matter of his daughter – for whom he initially denies paternity, then grudgingly accepts responsibility for – and of former Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), who wrestles with Jobs over the future of the company. Finally, Joanna (Kate Winslet), the company’s head of marketing, sticks by Jobs’ side: she’s as close to a friend or confidante as he seems to have.

It’s never convincing, how so many elements in Jobs’ life manage to converge in moments of utmost tension and anticipation (even if, cleverly, Sorkin alludes to this contrivance in the script). In the first act, this makes for exhilarating drama. In the second, it’s still engaging, but there’s a creeping curiosity as to how Boyle and Sorkin plan to pull everything together. By the end, the conclusions drawn are too broad, given the film’s narrow scope, and distressingly earnest, given how challenging the film’s depiction of Jobs is in the early going.

“Steve Jobs” still aspires to sweeping, emotional biography, which makes for a serious discrepancy between form and intent. There’s a push-and-pull going on that never leaves the negotiation room. Sorkin’s talk opera often runs counter to Boyle’s encompassing vision, a friction that produces mesmerizing cinema early on but turns unfocused by midpoint. The second act concludes on a screaming match between Sculley and Jobs, and Boyle swells the score to convey a heightened importance even though the content of the scene is razor-thin. At once, it’s over-directed and overwritten.

Boyle, prone to ambitious but uneven moviemaking, again works well with his actors and constructs intensely suffocating scenes. The first act is a master class in character study, atmospheric tension and performative realism, and Sorkin’s writing rattles brilliantly. But there’s just not much of a movie to back it all up. The sharp dialogue struggles to escape its deliberateness. It feels like an exercise in writing without any discernible purpose or backbone. The same goes for Boyle’s excited direction, in which there’s a hollowness that can’t quite be compensated for.

What sticks, more than anything else, are the performances. Jobs’ storyline in this film is a little too tidy, but Fassbender is never less than riveting as the icon. He’s uncompromising and contemplative, and watching him churn through Sorkin’s monologues is a work of art on its own. The “Shame” star is central to every scene, and it’s a tall order that the actor pulls off with careful, measured impact.

Winslet, Rogen, Stuhlbarg and Katherine Waterston – as the flaky mother of Jobs’ child – all do very good work in the background, with a scene or two apiece to shine. The supporting players manage to transcend significant flaws in the writing. These characters exist solely in their relation to Jobs, but the actors dig in to find nuances and leave an impression.

Boyle’s production, in-tune with Sorkin’s writing, is theatrical – interior, verbal, a little staged. It takes place behind the scenes of a brewing revolution, and that’s a potentially fascinating conceit to work with. We meet Jobs as unflappable, egomaniacal, occasionally cruel – the picture painted, against the backdrop of innovation, is admirably uncompromising.

But Sorkin, eternal optimist he’s long proven to be, isn’t interested in living in that character space. He half-heartedly draws connecting lines between Jobs’ worst traits and his upbringing, favoring an arbitrary redemptive tale over a more complex engagement. For the ending, Boyle immerses his audience in sap, earnestly (and unconvincingly) pulling in each of the film’s threads to surround Jobs’ relationship with his daughter.

Such a point of focus might not be untrue to the man’s life. But it does prove one thing. “Steve Jobs’” emotional and thematic arcs end up no less standard – and, perhaps, no less didactic – than those of the biopics that it so intently works to separate from.


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“Steve Jobs” is playing now at Regal Hollywood 20 and Lakewood Ranch Cinemas.


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