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Steve Jobs

By Willie Krischke

My biggest beef with Danny Boyle’s films – which I generally like — is that he tends to take what ought to be harrowing, miserable experiences and make them look like a lot of fun. Whether it’s heroin addiction in Scotland (“Trainspotting,”) poverty in India (Slumdog Millionaire”) or hacking your own arm off in Utah (“127 Hours,”) the way Boyle films them makes me think they’d make pretty great theme park rides. Welcome to Boyleland.

That’s entirely absent from Boyle’s newest project, “Steve Jobs,” which manages to do nearly the opposite, making a product launch, which seems like it ought to be fun and exciting,  feel pretty stressful and miserable. “it’s like five minutes before each launch, everyone goes to the bar, gets drunk, and tells me what they really think,” Jobs (Michael Fassbender) complains near the end of the film. This is a bit of lamp-shading on the part of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, whose script dominates this movie to the point that Danny Boyle’s stylistic flourishes are almost entirely absent. The film is structured around three product launches – the original Macintosh, the neXT cube, and the iMac – and the only scenes that don’t take place within a few hundred feet of the product stage are some brief flashbacks. It’s the kind of structural setup that might make “Steve Jobs” a better theater production than a film.

It also might work better as a radio drama. Everything that is good about this film originates in Sorkin’s script. It’s maybe the Sorkin-iest script ever, by which I mean, if you’re a fan of “West Wing” and “Sports Night” and can even find yourself defending “The Newsroom” when you’ve had too much to drink, you’re going to really love this film. If you’re indifferent to those shows, you’ll probably like this film. (If you hate them, stay away.) When I was studying acting in college, we had to take a special class on Shakespearean dialogue, because it was so distinct from anything else ever written. I wonder now if they teach actors Sorkin-ian dialogue, not because he’s anywhere near as great as Shakespeare, but because his dialogue is not like anything else in movies or TV. I can imagine actors and actresses feeling completely overwhelmed trying to master its diction and cadence, its timing and pace. It’s really difficult, and, in my opinion, really entertaining when done well.

Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet do it well. Winslet, especially melts into her role as Jobs’ assistant Joanna Hoffman, to the point that for the first half of the film, when she’s style to look like Melissa Steadman from “Thirtysomething,” I didn’t even recognize her. Some of the other actors struggle a bit more, most noticeably Seth Rogen, who is clearly trying hard but out of his depth (it’s a weird casting choice; I get that he looks like Steve Wozniak, but Rogen’s characteristic stoner blabber style is about as far away as you can get from Sorkin’s hyper-intellectual patter while still talking.)

Jobs goes three rounds with a pretty limited cast of characters; really, besides extras, there are only a few people in this movie (another reason it feels more like a play.) Jeff Daniels plays Scully, one-time Apple CEO and father figure to Jobs; that angle is played a little too heavily, as Scully keeps talking about Jobs’ adoption as a baby. There’s also his ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) who is shifty but confident that Jobs owes her something because they had a daughter together. She fades into the background as that daughter, Lisa (played by three different actresses at different ages) is able to hold her own in scenes with her dad. Along with Hoffman(Winslet) and Wozniak(Rogen,), Michael Stuhlbarg rounds out the principal cast as Andy Hertzfeld, a software engineer Jobs mostly yells at and threatens for dramatic effect.

At its heart, the film isn’t about shiny electronics, but about Jobs’ struggle to overcome his confidence in his own genius in order to be a human being. “They’re not binary,” Wozniak tells him with a sigh. “You can be a genius and decent at the same time.” Almost all of the people in his life love him and can hardly stand to be around him. He treats them like poorly designed computer components, until finally admitting, to the most important person in his life, that he sees himself as poorly designed. That may be a copout – blaming his problems on some far-off, unknowable Designer — but it’s also a huge step for Jobs, to admit that he isn’t right about everything all the time.

Maybe it’s a good thing that Danny Boyle’s customarily exuberant showmanship isn’t on display here. Maybe he recognized that the pyrotechnics packed into the script meant there would be no need for inside-the-Nalgene camera shots. I’ve often wish Boyle would occasionally show some restraint; he’s all restraint here. I should be glad for that, but I’m left wondering what, then, makes it a Danny Boyle film. David Fincher has a distinctive style as well, and that came across in “The Social Network,” in spite of Sorkin’s script (which is stylistically very similar to this one.) He probably doesn’t want to be known as a writer who completely dominates his director, the way someone like Charlie Kaufman is known – but there’s no doubt this is an Aaron Sorkin film, not a Danny Boyle film.

 

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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