Computer culture speeds everything up – makes it more instant, more immediate, maybe more disposable – and so it makes sense, in a way, that the biopics of the computer revolution are coming out so quickly, when the revolution is barely into its second act. (Most of the revered musical legends of the ’60s and ’70s are still waiting for their movie bios.) The Social Network was released just a few years after the launch of Facebook, but it was cuttingly incisive, brilliant, timeless. And now, only a little more than a year after Steve Jobs’ death, the time feels right for jOBS, which premiered last night at Sundance, and which tells the story of the Apple co-founder and black-turtlenecked guru of the technocratic age.
Since people with greatness in them tend to come with oversize streaks of ego, hunger, difficulty, and even cruelty, and since Jobs’ death was followed by a tidal wave of commentary (the tributes, the Walter Isaacson biography, the why-the-iPod-is-as-major-an-invention-as-the-lightbulb analysis), most of us will go into jOBS already knowing the two fundamental things about him: that he was a visionary perfectionist obsessed with melding technological form and function into products that would fuse with the people who used them; and that he was so possessed by this mission that he was also a control-freak dictator, a fanatic, an over-the-top a—-hole. Still, watching jOBS, with its basic warts-and-all accuracy and unsweetened, killer-shrewd performance by Ashton Kutcher (who was obviously cast because he looks like Jobs, but who bites into the role with his incisors), I was surprised, and often riveted, by what a starkly honest portrait it is.
The movie opens in 1974, when Jobs is a shaggy, barefoot college dropout in the Bay Area who picks up on the inventiveness of his friend, Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad), who has figured out how to hook up a keyboard to a television monitor. Jobs then fast-talks (or is it strong-arms?) his way into a deal to sell 50 of these contraptions to a local computer-component store owner. They’ve got just two months to build them, and the film neatly re-enacts the eager-beaver, geek-in-the-garage intensity that is the founding image of the home-computer age. When Wozniak, a burly nerd who works on this stuff mostly so that he can feel like one of the guys, takes out his trusty solder gun to attach transistors to a flat green board, jOBS channels the early paradox of computer culture: that to us it seemed light, virtual, magical, but to the people who invented it it was something that was built, diode by diode.
At the same time, almost everything we see Steve Jobs do that doesn’t involve designing computers is unconscionable. He’s so possessed with getting his company off the ground that when his wife announces she’s pregnant, he treats it as an imposition, something he has nothing to do with, and he evolves out of that the (pathological) conviction that the child isn’t his. At work, his inspirational, here’s-what-we’re-doin’ mission statements (complete with all those folksy dropped “g”s) begin to teeter into harangues. As the movie goes on, Jobs evolves from a grouchy hippie to a corporate sharpie in three-piece suits, and Kutcher lets his voice get more and more crisp with grandiosity, so that he’s not talking, he’s lecturing, because he’s the only one who grasps the inner truth of computer-design-as-transcendence. He runs Apple as if it were an est seminar. And anyone who isn’t a fellow true believer is out the door. (Even most of the true believers don’t get stock options.) The scene in which he fires a software expert who’s blind to the importance of fonts is chilling, not because Jobs is wrong (making the aesthetics of every detail essential is a cornerstone of his genius), but because what he’s left with is a pack of smiling brainiac worker bees: the cult of Apple.
Like The Social Network, jOBS is a technology story that’s really a high-wire business story. The essential tale it tells is that Steve Jobs, in the years after he founded Apple, became so obsessed with creating the perfect home-computer product that he turned into a bad businessman, tossing away millions of dollars in research, and bogging the company down while he fetishized perfecting the Macintosh. A lot of the movie is about his battles with executives, board members, and John Sculley (Matthew Modine), the CEO he hires away from Pepsi. They all start off as Jobs’ comrades and end up his enemies. I’m a sucker for these kinds of big-money power faceoffs, and Joshua Michael Stern, the director of jOBS, stages them well, yet with a one-thing-after-another quality that doesn’t allow any one character to become somebody we care about. Dermot Mulroney plays Mike Markkula, the original investor in Apple, who sticks by Jobs for two decades and ends up getting thrown over the side. I guess we’re supposed to be drop-kicked by this the way we were by Mark Zuckerberg’s lack of personal loyalty in The Social Network, but the comparison just reveals the difference between the two films. In The Social Network, the human drama behind the founding of Facebook is volcanic. In jOBS, Josh Gad’s deadpan flip performance as Wozniak strikes the most relatable note in the movie, but the only thing we’re really arrested by, apart from the dark-geek spectacle of Steve Jobs’ bad behavior, is seeing him talk about computers.
The ironic thrust of the movie is that Jobs’ humanity is there in that perfectionistic insanity. He pushes and pushes and pushes to make home computers more and more and more appealing and accessible and user-friendly, and that’s his great gift to the world. Jobs, in essence, gets tossed out of his own company because he’s too far ahead of his time. That must have been devastating, but jOBS doesn’t really take us on that personal journey along with him. Its fall-and-redemption narrative is generic, abstract. And maybe that’s because the reason that this movie even exists – the notion that Steve Jobs is The One Who Changed Our Lives – has been, to put it mildly, a little overhyped. He didn’t invent the personal computer, although he did refine it into something more seductively handy and even beautiful. And the iPod, while a wonderful device, was hardly a revolution. (The fact that it was so famously “cool” should be a clue that Jobs was selling cachet in the form of liberation-through-technology.) Personally, I’m a devotee of Steve Jobs’ products (I’m writing this post on my beloved MacBook), but maybe there’s a reason that biopics tend to come out years after their subjects’ achievements have been fully digested by the culture at large. Sometimes, it takes that long to separate reality from legend.
* * * *
Is James Franco a major movie star who is also a daring and subversive indie-intellectual adventurer? Or is he just deeply invested in having us think of him that way? A bit of both, I would say. Franco is very, very smart, and he does take chances, but he’s also a little too obviously pleased with himself about all his brainy side projects. Interior. Leather Bar., which he conceived and co-directed with Travis Mathews, sounded intriguing, which is why I made a point of seeing it. The film presents itself as an attempt to re-create, or re-construct, or de-construct, or something, 40 minutes of sexually intense footage that were ostensibly cut out of Cruising, the controversial 1980 William Friedkin thriller set in the New York subculture of gay S&M, in compliance with the MPAA. The first disappointment of Interior. Leather Bar. is that Franco, discussing how he’s going to re-imagine this footage, announces that he doesn’t really have the budget to make it, you know, convincing. It’s not really going to look like footage that was cut from Cruising. It’s just going to be a no-budget, shot-on-camcorder idea of that footage. The second disappointment is that even though Interior. Leather Bar. is only an hour long, most of the movie isn’t about showcasing the re-created footage. It’s about Franco and his actors – some gay, some straight – sitting around and talking about what they plan to do, and how they’re going to do it, and how they feel about it, and what it all means. (Do you feel yourself growing progressively less intrigued?)
On a soundstage in Los Angeles, the actors assemble for the day-long shoot, then try on their costumes (buttless chaps, a leather hood), and we meet a young actor named Val Lauren, who is going to be playing the Al Pacino role. He’s got curly hair and big dark eyes, and he sort of resembles Pacino – if Pacino had been a bland suburban putz who wandered around looking kind of clueless. Here are some of the things that Lauren reveals about himself: He’s not really sure why he signed on to this project. He’s happily married, to a woman who’s also not sure why he signed on to this project. He’s willing to kiss another guy on camera, but that’s as far as he’ll go. Oh, and he’s not really into the project.
At last, everyone stops talking about re-creating the lost footage from Cruising and starts to re-create it, at which point Interior. Leather Bar. descends into scenes of explicit, graphic, close-up oral sex. But wait a minute: What does this have to do with William Friedkin’s Cruising, which was never a a hard-core gay porn film? The idea, I guess (to the extent that there is an idea), is that the graphic footage in Interior. Leather Bar. is meant to shock us in a way that reverberates back over the decades, to the moment when Cruising was a shocking thriller for mainstream audiences. Franco starts talking about how he wants to break down his own hard-wired prejudices, and how the fact that we all live with so many double standards about straight versus gay sex is very, very messed up. He’s right, and he’s pretty articulate about such matters, but I still wondered: Why are we watching James Franco give a lecture that sounds like it came out of a Queer Theory seminar he took on the way to one of his multiple college degree? The movie’s low point may be the one scene that looks like it could conceivably have come out of Cruising: Val Lauren heads out onto the disco floor and tentatively re-creates Pacino’s crazy fist-pump dance. But how could that be “lost” footage…when it’s already in Cruising? (And guess what: Pacino’s dancing was a lot better.) Interior. Leather Bar. is Cruising re-contextualized, all right – into a limp folly. The one thing the movie truly gives you an interior look at is James Franco’s vanity.
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman