Sunday, October 25, 2015

OVP: Steve Jobs (2015)

Film: Steve Jobs (2015)
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston
Director: Danny Boyle
Oscar History: 2 nominations (Best Actor-Michael Fassbender, Supporting Actress-Kate Winslet)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

I have an anathema to biopics, especially this time of year where the Oscars go gaga for them and I kind of want to throw up in response.  Seriously-they're so formulaic and so rarely say something interesting about the protagonist that history or the news media hasn't already discovered.  It's usually the same sorts of stories too, as frequently we see biopics of incredible human beings who accomplish feats against the odds (after all, who wants to see a biopic of just an ordinary human being?).  I went into Steve Jobs, though, a little curious.  After all, one of about four biopics from the past five years that I genuinely admired and loved came from Aaron Sorkin, writer of Steve Jobs, and was also about the Citizen Kane-style rise of a tech icon (in that case, Mark Zuckerberg and The Social Network).  Sorkin and director Danny Boyle don't disappoint in once again finding a new mold to fit the biopic in, but here we have a less successful execution thanks to a severely-botched third act that threatens to destroy an impressively-started motion picture.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film unfolds in three different acts, centered around the launches of a trio of products: the Macintosh, the NeXT, and the iMac, all of which left an indelible print on the world of technology but in wildly different frames of success.  The film follows Jobs (Fassbender) and his right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman (Winslet) as they encounter a series of interactions with various people in Jobs' world, including his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Rogen), former Apple CEO John Sculley (Daniels), and his daughter Lisa.  The film watches as his relationships with all three change, and in some cases remain the same, with him constantly having a chilly distance to his daughter, revering Sculley as the father he had but apparently didn't want, and condescending Wozniak as a friend he needs to protect.  The film's third act addresses these years of interactions, when we know Jobs is about to translate from being a genius to becoming a sort of demigod in the world of technology, reinvigorating his company in a way that changed electronics and the world forever (not for nothing, but I'm writing this article on an iMac).

The film's framing device of these three launches is interesting, and keeps us from having to see a ploddingly simplistic look at how Jobs came from humbled roots (we get that hinted enough with the conversations with his longtime Apple co-founders), but it does occasionally come with issues.  For example, with the exception of Winslet most of the side characters end up being pretty two-dimensional.  Rogen's Wozniak, without a tale of how two such completely different men were able to create something so compelling, is just whiny and seems to hero-worship Jobs and yet despise him at once.  This may well be true, but the reality is that Rogen's performance isn't enough to make us comprehend that conundrum.  The same goes for Jobs' jerk attitude toward Lisa's mother Chrisann (Waterston)-the film treats her as a one-night stand that resulted in a baby, and we get little indication as to why Jobs was interested in her in the first place.  Fassbender's performance is remarkable, wonderfully-felt and delivered and really just a joy to behold as the titular character, but no one else around him seems to be of much use to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.  I only recluse Winslet because she's so damn good at an underwritten character here (which, admittedly, is not what I'd call her strength).  Her Joanna is a woman who is so surface-level that Winslet does a remarkable job of inserting just enough moments of depth in her relationship with Jobs (whom you can tell she views a bit as the kid brother she never had and is constantly doting upon/scolding), though I would be remiss if I didn't point out that her accent-work needed some help.  These two are the best part of the movie by a country mile.

The writing is a conundrum for me.  I have long ago realized that Aaron Sorkin is an acquired taste, but occasionally even he needs to reign himself in, and his fast-talking, hyper-intelligent creations are frequently their own worst enemy.  Sorkin, despite his protestations, is not great at writing women (evidenced by the Winslet comments above), and in particular this shows with Jobs' daughter Lisa, who in the third act is unfortunately saddled with a series of mood swings that completely betray his previous precocious attitudes toward her (plus, no woman born in the tail-end of the Carter administration could spout a Judy Jetson-style zinger with that much ease).  However, the entire third act is a mess, with Wozniak, Sculley, and Lisa all coming to Jobs to try and gain absolution, and all are granted it by him with a handsomely-wrapped bow.  The reality is that this happens with almost no real indication as to why (after all, he had been on the cusp of a great new moment in technology multiple times before and failed-the character himself couldn't have known the iMac would revolutionize the PC), since he's still a prick who has purposefully prioritized his career over personal relationships and family.  The fact that Sorkin ended with a sloppily-tied-together "happy family moment" ending is appalling and cringeworthy, and really disregards most of his previous moments with Jobs.  The ending of this film, based on the first ninety minutes, should have little to do with his daughter and more to do with his professional vindication despite a constant barrage of personal failures.  The fact that the final scene is him lovingly looking at a girl he barely knows feels like something a studio executive demanded, but it reeks of lousy writing and a directorial choice beneath what Boyle/Sorkin pulled together in the stellar first two-thirds.

I hate poor endings to movies, and part of me wants to go with two stars just because the film left me with such a bitter taste in my mouth, but I'll relent and go with three based on the excellence coming from Fassbender and Winslet.  Overall, though, I left disappointed and wishing that the man who brought us something so extraordinary in The Social Network had better stepped up to the plate.

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