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‘Jobs’ Review: Needs a Trip to the Genius Bar

Ashton Kutcher stars as the Apple exec in a movie that never convincingly portrays him as either genius or bastard

Steve Jobs shifted a lot of paradigms during his lifetime, including how movies are filmed and distributed, but you’d never know it from “Jobs,” an unengaging biopic that wants to portray the various sides of the Apple Computers founder but never makes any one of them particularly compelling.

At an overlong 127 minutes, “Jobs” paradoxically feels like it’s rushing through Jobs’ life and times, never capturing the man’s contradictory nature or satisfyingly placing him in a specific historical context.

The movie tells us that he liked Bob Dylan and hated shoes, he stabbed some friends in the back and had some big ideas, but it never provides any true insight into the man.

Nor does it fully capture the revolutionary impact that the home computer had on the world.

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What we’re left is a bunch of standard biopic highlights, accompanied by music cues that are either on-the-nose hit songs of the recent past or John Debney’s underscoring, which tends to turn the proceedings into Disneyland’s Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.

After an opening scene in which the older Jobs (played at every age by Ashton Kutcher) announces the invention of the iPod, the movie jumps back to 1974, when rebellious college dropout Steve takes the advice of a supportive professor (James Woods) to audit classes in various departments to stimulate his varied interests in the arts and electronics.

Steve drops acid (in a hilarious, clichéd sequence), Steve goes to India, and then Steve goes to work for Atari, where he annoys his co-workers and his superiors, even though they all acknowledge his genius. After passing off the work of his buddy Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad) as his own, and seeing Wozniak’s creation of a computer keyboard that hooks into a television screen, thus allowing the user to see his work as he enters it, Apple Computers is born in Jobs’ parents’ garage.

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After a slow start, things get rolling when investor Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney) makes the scene, and from there “Jobs” hits all the career highlights you’d expect, from the success of the Apple II to the debacle of Lisa to the lawsuit against Microsoft to his expulsion from Apple and eventual return to the fold.

And while first-time screenwriter Matt Whiteley avoids hagiography — Jobs treats devoted friends and lovers like dirt — this is the sort of movie where people go around making declarative statements about their wants and desires and philosophies in ways that no human being does.

(The movie also climaxes with the creation of the iMac, those candy-colored eyesores from the turn of the millennium, whose main impact on the culture was the iFruity character in the comic strip “Fox Trot.”)

There’s some discussion about Jobs having been abandoned by his birth parents, but beyond that there’s no effort to get into his head to explain or even suggest a motivation for his behavior. All that “Jobs” leaves us with is a jerk genius.

Kutcher, to his credit, doesn’t downplay the jerk part, but he never has that moment where the performer disappears into the real-life character he’s playing. The fact that his efforts to mimic Jobs’ pronunciation pattern fluctuate from scene to scene underscores all the acting he’s doing, which is a big distraction.

Even with an army of character actors on hand (including J.K. Simmons, Kevin Dunn, Lukas Haas, Matthew Modine, Lesley Anne Warren, Elden Henson and Ron Eldard, to name just a few), “Jobs” really belongs to Gad, whose Wozniak is the brainy, vulnerable and human heart of the film. It’s the most restrained screen performance to date from this Broadway star, and one that proves he’s got more gifts than just playing to the back balcony.

Director Joshua Michael Stern (“Swing Vote”) clearly revels in the period detail of the last several decades, but he never conveys the importance of Steve Jobs to those same years. Instead, he’s given us the Zune of movie biographies.