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'Jobs' fails to find the man within the businessman

Friday - 8/23/2013, 12:19pm  ET

This Apple Not Yet Ripe

WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley reviews the new "Jobs" biopic.

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WASHINGTON - "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."

Words to live by, courtesy of the man who took a giant bite out of the universe's apple and changed the core of our everyday lives.

The genius of Steve Jobs was that he was able to think outside the box with artful innovation, while at the same time create accessible products for the layman.

Great movies do the same, investing us in their characters and riveting us with surface emotion, while challenging us to discover genius layers of subtext, commentary and symbolism underneath.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers behind "Jobs" try too hard to make their movie accessible, cutting corners in a way that would have caused Steve Jobs to order the crew to start over.

Jobs's motto was to "think different" and thus "put a dent in the universe."

"Jobs" thinks safely, barely putting a dent in the 2013 summer movie season.

The film opens with a turtle-necked Jobs (Ashton Kutcher) unveiling the iPod at his famous 2001 expo. From there, we flash back to all the major moments of his career: his formative college years experimenting with LSD; his garage invention of the Apple II with Steve "Woz" Wozniak (Josh Gad); the backing of investor Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney); the hiring of Pepsi's John Sculley (Matthew Modine) to create Apple's famous "1984" ad; the rise of the Macintosh; Jobs's firing from the company he created and his ultimate rehiring. The iPhone, iPad, Apple Store and Pixar are notably absent.

Ashton Kutcher is an odd pick: Kelso from "That 70s Show" (1998); the dumb to Stifler's dumber in "Dude, Where's My Car?" (2000); the host of MTV's "Punk'd" (2003); and the replacement for Charlie "Winning" Sheen on "Two and a Half Men" (2011). He's one step removed from Johnny Knoxville, who's hilarious in a "Jackass" setting, but would not be anyone's first pick to play Steve Jobs.

Even so, Kutcher gives a valiant effort, recreating Jobs' fragile walk and daring eyes during moments of inspired business negotiation. If only he had the chops to hit the more emotional peaks, like screaming in frustration after a series of marketing calls, or crying in his garage after being fired.

The worst scene in this regard comes as Jobs lies on a blanket with his friend and girlfriend, high on acid and looking up at the sky with a tear on his cheek. "Why didn't my dad want me?" he asks. Perhaps because he doesn't like characters who say exactly what they're thinking.

If there's one thing "Jobs" succeeds at, it's proving how good "The Social Network" (2010) is by comparison. Perhaps it's not fair to compare "Jobs" director Joshua Michael Stern ("Swing Vote") to "Social Network" director David Fincher ("Fight Club"), nor first-time screenwriter Matt Whiteley to Aaron Sorkin ("A Few Good Men"), nor Ashton Kutcher ("Butterfly Effect") to Jesse Eisenberg ("Zombieland"). Name recognition aside, though, the product itself is a serious downgrade from the 2010 flick that damn near won Best Picture -- and featured one of my favorite trailers of all time:

Both films feature fascinating "A-Stories" chronicling a tech wizard's entrepreneurial rise through corporate America and battles against intellectual property theft (Mark Zuckerberg vs. the Winklevoss Twins; Steve Jobs vs. Bill Gates). But this is only the "A-Story." "The Social Network" crushes "Jobs" in the realm of the "B-Story," laying out the protagonist's personal life for a telling character study.

You'll remember "The Social Network" opens with Mark Zuckerberg breaking up with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara). As the film progresses, he alienates his old college buddy (Andrew Garfield) for his new tech idol (Justin Timberlake). In the end, having pushed everyone away, the final shot shows him pathetically refreshing his Facebook page as he waits for his ex to respond to his friend request.

Conversely, "Jobs" spends most all of its screentime in the garages, offices and boardrooms of Jobs' career path. There are vague attempts at showing his personal life along the way, but these are given lip-service at best. What a shame considering there's so much psychology that made Jobs tick, almost in a Don Draper or Oliver Twist way, as laid out in Walter Isaacson's biography "Steve Jobs."

The first opportunity would have been during his formative years, experimenting with calligraphy, psychedelic drugs and global cultures. Instead, all this is crammed into a single, all-encompassing, globe- trotting, drug-experimenting montage - almost like a "Rocky" training montage for nerds.

The second chance would have been midway through the picture, when his girlfriend reveals she's pregnant. This could have been a powerful scene - like the Al Pacino-Diane Keaton abortion scene in "The Godfather Part II" (1974) - but the film brushes right past it in a minute or two.

The final chance comes during the couple's reconciliation. Instead of seeing Jobs own up to his fatherly responsibilities, we leap past this moment to see him already back living with his daughter, with no explanation as to how it happened, and wee never return to it the rest of the movie. Sure, father-daughter reconciliations are hard to master when you're dealing with a real-life story, but no excuses: we just saw it done well with Billy Beane in "Moneyball" (2011).

For all this, we get less a sense of Jobs the man, and more a sense of Jobs the businessman. I suppose "Jobs" is worth seeing for this career journey alone, but the real master biopics ("Lawrence of Arabia," "Patton," "Schindler's List") give us a sense of the person behind the reputation.

Steve Jobs deserves a more serious treatment. Hopefully we'll get it someday. For now, we're stuck with a 4-star bio shoehorned into a 2-star biopic. I'll throw in an extra 1/2 star in the hopes that his genius will infect moviegoers by osmosis. For even as I type this final sentence, I'm writing on a MacBook Pro with an iPad to my left and an iPod to my right.

Take a look around sometime. Jobs is everywhere.

★ ★ 1/2

The above rating is based on a 4-star scale. Follow WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley on Twitter @AboveTheJFray, read his blog The Film Spectrum or listen Friday mornings on 103.5 FM.

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