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Ashton Kutcher's 'Jobs': The dubious appeal of playing a tech titan

August 16, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs in "Jobs."
Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs in "Jobs." (Open Road )

This weekend, audiences will get the chance to watch Steve Jobs, a man they've spent decades seeing in the news or their mind's eye, on the big screen, looking a little like a famous actor. “Jobs,” Joshua Michael Stern’s take on the late icon, hits theaters after earlier premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, as Ashton Kutcher puts his best bare foot forward as the Apple founder.

So it goes for actors these days. Older actors want to play monarchs and presidents. Younger performers once wanted to play rock stars. But they increasingly enjoy taking on tech geeks, which is why Jesse Eisenberg embraced the role of Mark Zuckerberg and Garret Hedlund jumped into “Tron: Legacy.” Now Kutcher, a voracious follower of technology (or at least technology stocks) arrives with his spin on Jobs.

Kutcher’s physical mimicry of the iPod innovator is spot-on, including the loping gait, the intense-but-dreamy expressions and the bursts of passionate anger. Anyone worried that traces of “That '70s Show” or “Punk’d” would come through here were worried for naught. It feels like Steve Jobs.

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The problem is that it never really feels like much more. As we watch the character, we get a sense of what he was trying to do with his company, and we get a sense of a few of his quirks. But we don’t get his subliminal passions, his deepest fears, his inner life. We don’t get the kind of arresting portrait actors in any genre, but particularly a character piece, are supposed to give us.

Perhaps that’s in some part because we’ve seen Jobs interact in real life, which leaves a lot less room for us to imagine him as something cinematic. Or perhaps it’s that the actor himself is too reverent toward his subject. "This was honestly one of the most terrifying things I've ever tried to do in my life. I admired this man so much,” Kutcher said at Sundance.

Or maybe there's a larger issue: The very idea of playing a tech geek is problematic. Jobs was a great marketer and rousing public speaker, compellingly watchable — check out his entertaining, slightly swaggering introduction of the famous “1984” commercial — but what he ultimately was really was a guy who made products and tried to sell them to the world. And not even bizarre and wacky products, but products that many of us want. It’s not fundamentally dramatic or strange. (Jobs did have an intriguing private life having to do with his adoptive past, but to make a movie primarily about that would take the film well beyond the technological.)

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Making matters more slippery is that these movies are getting less and less novel. By now the tech-titan film, is -- speaking of rock stars -- starting to take on certain “Behind the Music”-like tropes. Hyper-intelligent renegades who don’t fit into traditional systems break away and start a company. At first there’s great success, but then there's great infighting, as brilliant minds can’t help people felled by ego, or their own emotional handicaps. By the end, after waging war with the enemy without or within, the hero has achieved a certain amount of debatable success.

That sounded like I was describing “Jobs,” but it also could have applied to, for all its Sorkian charms, “The Social Network,” “The Pirates of Silicon Valley" and a number of fictional features in this vein. Or to a cable special you might have watched late one night about Def Leppard.

The film and TV business will continue to be fascinated with technological innovators, perhaps because those innovators' this-app-will-change-the-world mentality is the same spirit that animates Hollywood. Sony is developing a competing Jobs film with Aaron Sorkin, and it’s only a matter of time before other non-Zuckerbergian paragons of the social Web get their movie moment. No doubt actors will line up to star as these personalities. The question is how much the rest of us will gain by watching them.


Movie review: 'Jobs'

Ashton Kutcher loves Steve Jobs—and audience loves him

Does Ashton Kutcher's 'Jobs' give enough credit to Steve Wozniak?

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