STEVE JOBS * *
Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Michael Stuhlbarg and Jeff Daniels. Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Danny Boyle.
“That’s something you say that sounds like something but it really doesn’t mean anything,” sighs Kate Winslet’s long-suffering Joanna Hoffman in response to another gaseous pronouncement from her boss, Michael Fassbender’s swaggering Apple computer guru Steve Jobs. She might just as well be talking about Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, which par for the course with this particular wordsmith is full of razzle-dazzle banter, yet this time around feels shockingly hollow. Directed with patented flashy sleight-of-hand for no particular purpose by Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs is slick and empty. It looks and sounds like a movie but it really isn’t about anything.
The whole thing feels like a stunt, akin to one of Jobs’ ostentatious product launches from which the film takes its trifurcated structure. A three-act play yammered out in real time, Steve Jobs hangs out backstage for forty minutes or so before the public debuts of 1984’s Macintosh, 1988’s doomed NeXTCube and eventually the iMac in 1998. Dramatically and quite improbably, everyone who our protagonist ever wronged just happens to be waiting in the wings on each occasion, resurfacing to rehash old arguments and settle scores as he neurotically paces around the performance space just before curtain like an even shittier Birdman.
I don’t mind that Sorkin’s Christmas Carol structure is brazenly ahistorical so much as I regret he didn’t do anything interesting with it: it’s the same damn scene three times in a row. Winslet’s girl Friday frantically tries to keep the event on track, while some scores are settled with once-and-former Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels) as Jobs insults and berates his chief engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg.) Lurking around, looking for credit is Seth Rogen’s adorable Steve Wozniak, who actually did all the work in the old days even though Jobs grabbed all the glory. Complicating matters further is a flaky ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) and the daughter Jobs repeatedly, adamantly continues to insist is not his.
The performers are uniformly excellent, which is saying something because Sorkin only provides each with a single character trait. Credit them all for finding enough wiggle-room to make something memorable while director Danny Boyle was apparently busy trying to figure out where’s the most distracting place possible to put the camera. Daniels can speak Sorkin-ese in his sleep, but Stuhlbarg shores up a heroically stubborn integrity and Rogen is at his wounded, Fozzie Bear finest. Winslet’s super-dowdy and quite moving as an employee who deserved a much better boss, while Fassbender is just a massive dick. (Write your own joke there, kids.)
You don’t really learn anything about Steve Jobs from Steve Jobs. They pretend for awhile he’s all sad because he was adopted but mostly it’s just a dude behaving horribly to everybody around him until literally in the last five minutes of the movie he has an out-of-nowhere, totally unmotivated change of heart and decides to be a good Dad and then invents the fucking iPod. Roll credits.
David Fincher shot Sorkin’s script for The Social Network as a blistering farce that had no mercy on his “fuck-you filp-flops” dickhead Gatsby protagonist. Danny Boyle’s direction of Steve Jobs has no clear agenda besides small shiny objects and funny turns of phrase. The most ADHD of filmmakers not named Michael Bay, Boyle cuts scenes to ribbons fluttering in and out of flashbacks with soaring musical crescendos mid-dialogue and bizarre special effects. Fassbender can’t tell a story about Skylab without Boyle projecting stock footage of Skylab on a wall behind him to goose along the action.
When you think about it, Danny Boyle is really the worst director imaginable for an Aaron Sorkin script (even one of the good ones, of which this is not.) Boyle has never, ever in his entire career been interested in blocking two actors having a conversation in a remotely compelling fashion, so instead he flings a lot of tricky visual shit at the wall and sometimes some of it sticks. This profound inability to direct a simple conversation makes Steve Jobs feel like the anti-Bridge of Spies. Boyle’s much ballyhooed decision to shoot the film’s separate sequences in 16mm, 35mm and digital is just another stunt – the kind of aesthetic fucking around people do when they don’t know what their movie is about.
I still don’t know what it’s supposed to be about either, save for a writer and director trying to set off fireworks without being on the same page or really understanding what they want to say. We’ve seen four or five movies about this guy now and Steve Jobs is obviously one of the key figures in our contemporary cultural history. There’s gotta be more to his story than just magazines and daddy issues.