starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels
screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, based on the book by Walter Isaacson
directed by Danny Boyle
by Walter Chaw With Aaron Sorkin dialled to "11" on the Sorkin meter and Danny Boyle doing his best impersonation of Oliver Stone circa 1994, hotly-anticipated Steve Jobs biopic Steve Jobs features an Oscar-winning (in a year without a slavery or Holocaust picture, just mail it to him) performance by Michael Fassbender in the title role of a dysfunctional Sorkin genius figure, surrounded by the Sorkin retinue of brilliant but subordinated women and various omega males. The dialogue is alive, of course, that much to be expected, but in an attempt to capture Jobs's fragmented, hyperkinetic, probably-somewhere-on-the-autism-scale psyche, neither Boyle nor Sorkin demonstrate much in the way of restraint nor, really, much idea of what story it is that they want to tell. Some would push this scattered approach as a virtue. I see it as a good try at winnowing down a massive amount of source material into a broadly-entertaining, brisk awards-season biopic.
Steve Jobs is either about a guy who had great ideas at the expense of interpersonal relationships, or about great ideas that make fools of the prophets they choose as their vessels. One of those makes for a fantastic movie. The other has Jobs's inexplicably-loyal assistant Joanna (Kate Winslet) throw a tantrum so that her boss will pay for his daughter's tuition, and offers one of the great screen monsters in recent memory a kind of Sorkin-esque redemption, hard-won at the end of a massive shouting match. It's Oliver Stone's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and if it feels more than a few times like Birdman, well, that's warning enough about its at-times-deadening cadence. Worst is the casting of Jeff Daniels as long-suffering mentor John Sculley. Every time Daniels downturns his hangdog mug and emits a few dozen pages of single-spaced patter, the stink of Sorkin's "The Newsroom" just roils off him in waves. Sorkin, like Mamet, has a few actors who are now inextricably enmeshed in his style of delivery. Here, it's a useless distraction. It's like if David Milch did a Steve Jobs biopic and cast Ian McShane as Sculley--except that sounds awesome.
However derivative, Boyle's direction offers visual counterpoint to Sorkin's aural hammering, though compare it to the way that David Fincher handled Sorkin in The Social Network, smoothly underplaying behind Sorkin's spasmodic ejaculations. Fincher understood what Boyle does not: nobody out-Sorkins Sorkin. The attempt to match him in Steve Jobs results in an effect very much like two grasshoppers on a griddle. The film covers three major turning points in Jobs's career: the launch of the Mac; the launch of the NEXT; and the launch of the iMac, complete with a tease of the iPod and Apple's final conquest of the boutique tech market. Through each thread, we get a glimpse of Jobs's relationships with his daughter, his employees, and his legacy, and find him extraordinarily wanting. Such is his perfectionism that at the end of the film, when he confesses that he's "badly made," it lands with the gravity of a Hamlet soliloquy. Steve Jobs and Steve Jobs want desperately to be compared with opera, Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, name-dropped Stravinsky. Each segment covers the minutes leading up to release events so that the film becomes an extended backstage melodrama that allows Sorkin his favourite device of secondary/tertiary characters yelling out time reminders. Exhausting? At least.
But what's good is genuinely good. In Jobs, find Sorkin's ne plus ultra anti-protagonist. Arrogant beyond measure, brilliant beyond measure; when Jobs rails at subordinates about how they had two weeks longer to finish a project than God took to create the universe, one retorts, "Yes, you'll have to tell us how you did it sometime." Fassbender is spellbinding and never less than completely convincing. He out-Cumberbatches Cumberbatch here, nailing the accent and the mannerisms and embracing his big bid to the become the serious actor of the moment. He's been in better movies, and arguably his work with Steve McQueen is still his best, but he's memorably monstrous here: attractively, charmingly vile. Although her Polish accent is worn uncomfortably and becomes more and more pronounced as the years roll by (does Joanna live in a shtetl when she's not following Jobs around?), Winslet convinces as a smart and dedicated lieutenant in the Felicity Huffman/Emily Mortimer/Allison Janney mold. And Boyle, who hasn't made a complete movie since Shallow Grave, at least shoots for the moon and Ozymandias. In Jobs's world, after all, ambition--not greed--is good.