Geniuses, unfortunately, tend to be impossible people. Consumed by their own dazzling brilliance, they treat those closest to them cruelly and thoughtlessly, causing much undue suffering — only to turn around and invent a device that can put 1,000 songs in your pocket. Damn them.
If what we see in director Joshua Michael Stern's Jobs is true, Apple cofounder and all-around cool-product guru Steve Jobs, who died in 2011, was no bargain in the human-being department. When an early girlfriend — played by Ahna O'Reilly — tells him she's pregnant with what she's certain is his child, he informs her icily that her condition isn't his problem. But in addition to putting those 1,000 songs in our pocket, this asshole with a capital A is also hugely responsible for the efficient and beautifully designed machine on which I type these words — and quite likely the machine on which you read them. Jobs tries, feebly, to balance the man's epic contributions to the universe with his all-out douchebaggery. But how much of the latter can we, let alone Jobs's poor girlfriend, be expected to take?
Jobs covers the years 1971 to 1991, though it opens with an epigraph set in 2001. Our first glimpse of this Jobs, played by Ashton Kutcher, is as a benevolent-looking, graying middle-aged gent addressing his loyal, impossibly young employees. He's about to unveil a new product — the iPod, as it turns out — but his audience is already high on his Kool-Aid. As he strides across the stage, a charismatic nerd in mom jeans, their eyes follow him rapturously; they're like Silicon Valley Children of the Corn.
He Who Walks Ahead of the Curve speaks in earnest-sounding but totally marketing-ready slogans: The new device, he informs them, is a "tool for the heart. And when you can touch someone's heart — that's limitless." The movie wants us to see the man spouting these bromides as an older, wiser one, a man who started a company and then lost control of it, only to retake the reins and turn it into a global brand whose products touch the part of people's hearts that's directly connected to their wallets. But the Steve Jobs we see through most of Jobs is the younger, more ruthless one. We first meet him in 1971, a Reed College dropout: He sticks around campus because he doesn't know what else to do, padding from one class to another in bare feet — he's so nonconformist, he can't stand to wear shoes. (Later, perhaps having realized they're a necessary evil, he accepts Birkenstocks before moving on to puffy, old-man sneakers.)
Kutcher is wonderful in these scenes. Actually, Kutcher is pretty wonderful throughout Jobs: He plays the very young Jobs as a calculating hippie kid whose perpetual sense of wonderment — so irresistible to all the chicks — walks hand-in-hand with steely shrewdness. (When the sweet, pretty co-ed with whom he's just fallen into bed offers him a tab of acid, he obliges and asks if he can take a few more, one for his friend and one for his girlfriend.) After his nongraduation, Jobs somehow lands work at video-game pioneer Atari. There, he realizes he just can't work for the man — who (shudder!) makes him wear shoes — and with the help of a few friends, founds an early version of Apple in his parents' garage. At this point, he sports facial hair that makes him look like an apostle from a children's illustrated Bible: He's interested in spreading the good word, not actually writing it.
That, of course, changes pretty quickly. The scenes in which Jobs and his pals build a company by the seat of their pants are the most exhilarating: Their perpetual cluelessness, with its attendant restless energy, keeps the early part of the movie percolating. Lukas Haas plays Jobs's sweet-natured but unambitious college friend Daniel, who becomes just one victim of the Great Man's ruthlessness. Josh Gad plays Jobs's loyal pal and chief computer builder, Steve Wozniak, as a salt-of-the-earth geek: He's the real soul of the new machine, and it's easy to believe there'd be no Apple without him.
But Jobs gets bogged down once the suits get involved, as they inevitably must. The great J.K. Simmons is wasted as a corporate bad guy in an even worse toupee. Dermot Mulroney, as Apple angel investor Mike Markkula, has more to do, and at the very least gets a great entrance: He drives up to Apple's parental-garage headquarters in a lemony-gold '70s Stingray, a symbol of success that turns the tech nerds' eyes into awestruck little pinwheels.
But Stern, who directed the 2008 Swing Vote, with Kevin Costner, can't keep the movie purring smoothly, and too often he picks up potentially interesting threads only to drop them: James Woods shows up early on as a professor who sees Jobs's spark of whatever-it-is, but he's really little more than the symbolic Teacher Who Cared. Also, a bubbly blond wife (Abby Brammell), so cheerful in her suburban errand-running hoodie, appears unexplained late in the movie. How did that happen? Suddenly, the Steve Jobs who so conveniently ignored the existence of his firstborn daughter (while also — go figure — naming a failed computer after her), has had some sort of epiphany about building meaningful human relationships. Stern elides all of that. The movie itself, ultimately worshipful, ends up being Jobs-like in the cold way it treats flesh-and-blood people.
But if Stern lets Jobs off the hook, Kutcher doesn't. Occasionally, to suggest inner turmoil, he'll tremble and clench his fists — that's the hammy stuff. But mostly Kutcher only hints at what might be going on behind this confounding man's ever-shifting eyes. Kutcher finds compassion without going for anything so cheap as an explanation for Jobs's bad behavior; it's a wily, understated performance.
Jobs put a lot of himself into the products he developed. To love your MacBook, your iPod, your iPhone, is to love Steve Jobs the man just a little bit, from a convenient distance. Kutcher had it harder: He had to get right inside Jobs's head, and his performance suggests that it wasn't a fun place to be.