As of Monday, Ashton Kutcher's Steve Jobs biopic Jobs tiptoed into the black with a total domestic box office of $12.3 million to offset its $12 million budget. However, since a movie typically needs to make roughly three times its budget to cover marketing costs to be considered worth making, Jobs has to count on an impressive international showing if it's to avoid being labeled a dud.
So why didn't Jobs make more of a splash? After all, Steve Jobs is one of the most charismatic, intriguing, and successful figures in American history. His death in 2011 received the kind of news coverage and public outpouring usually reserved for rock stars and royalty, not CEOs of tech companies. Jobs, perhaps more than any other person, brought computer technology into the lives of average people, and his legacy stares back at us from the PCs we sit at, the phones we carry, the way we purchase digital media, and, most recently, the tablets we're increasingly replacing our computers with. It's a story I've directly or indirectly been following ever since I was a small child and my father brought home one of the very first Macintoshes.
Subject recognition and interest couldn't have been much higher for Jobs, so why did it falter? Is it because people tend to associate Ashton Kutcher with dopey comedy instead of serious drama? Is it because screenwriting star Aaron Sorkin is working on his own Steve Jobs script for Sony? Or is it Jobs just lousy? Watch my ReThink Review of Jobs below (transcript following).
Jobs, Ashton Kutcher's biopic about Apple visionary Steve Jobs, got hammered by critics and has performed poorly at the box office. However, I'm guessing a lot of those critics aren't like me -- someone who grew up on Apple computers, learned about design and technology from them, devoured Walt Isaacson's biography about Jobs, and has followed the company's every move for years on multiple tech blogs. Or are the bigger issues that Steve Jobs is played by Ashton Kutcher, who generally isn't considered a "serious" actor, or that Aaron Sorkin, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for The Social Network, is writing the screenplay for another Jobs biopic that will almost certainly be better in every respect? Or is it that Jobs really does just suck? Let's find out.
Jobs starts with Steve Jobs unveiling the first iPod at an Apple Town Hall meeting in 2001, then flashes back to Jobs' time as a hippy dropout at Reed College, where he did drugs, only went to classes he was interested in, and developed his love of computers and fonts. From there, you more or less have a typical business success story, from Apple's scrappy start in Jobs' parents' garage with his buddy Steve Wosniak (played by Josh Gads). There are Apple's ups and downs as they soared with the creation of the personal computer but ran past deadline and over budget with projects like the Macintosh; Jobs' ouster from the company he created; and ending with his triumphant return to Apple in 1996 and the start of his collaboration with design guru Jonny Ive which led to the creation of the iMac. If you read any of the thousands of articles about Jobs' in the week after his death in 2011, none of this should be news or spoil anything.
The story of Steve Jobs, Apple, and their impact on technology and the world are huge stories to tell, and even the most talented director and the best screenwriter would have an extremely difficult time trying to cram it all into a single movie. Unfortunately, Jobs doesn't have either, with director Joshua Michael Stern's only feature directing credit being the Kevin Costner political comedy Swing Vote, while screenwriter Matt Whitely, according to his IMDB page, has written NO screenplays aside from the one for Jobs.
This is a big problem for two reasons. The first is that instead of focusing on a shorter period of time that's emblematic of the journey of Jobs and Apple, Stern and Whitely attempt to tell you everything -- and end up not telling any part particularly well. This opens up the film to criticism for missing key moments, including Jobs' visit to XEROX PARC where he first saw the graphic user interface that brought home computing to the masses; or Jobs' role in the creation of PIXAR; as are his obsessions with eastern philosophy and Japanese design. A lot of issues are only given cursory treatment, like the fact Jobs was adopted, that he refused to acknowledge his first daughter for years, or why he screwed over some of Apple's founding members. And the big questions of why Jobs was the way he was in his personal life and his business dealings, and why he more than anyone else on the planet understood the role technology could serve in people's everyday lives, are left unanswered.
The other big problem of having a weak director and screenwriter to tell an amazing story is when you know that something much better is on its way. Aaron Sorkin's Steve Jobs screenplay is based on Walter Isaacson's definitive biography, which will surely attract best-in-the-business talent. And with Sorkin's talent for dialogue and character development, as well as the fact that he's proven adept at telling great stories about the tech world and maverick visionaries, I spent a lot of time watching Jobs thinking how much better Sorkin's movie will most likely be. The problem with Jobs definitely isn't Kutcher, who gives a strong, passionate performance that's probably the best of his career so far. But without a good director and screenplay to back him up, Jobs is hard to recommend, especially when you know a better version 2.0 is on the way.