Steve Jobs’ plays like an uneven portrait of the Apple leader

Pair of Steves: Fassbender and Rogen as Jobs and Wozniak.

Three stars

Steve Jobs Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen. Directed by Danny Boyle. Rated R. Opens Friday.

Steve Jobs was a jerk. That’s the main takeaway from director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s lively but somewhat empty biopic Steve Jobs, which reduces the Apple co-founder and CEO’s life to three moments in time. Sorkin’s script is set backstage at three major product launches that Jobs (Michael Fassbender) led: the 1984 introduction of the first Macintosh; the 1988 premiere of Job’s ill-fated NeXT, which he developed after being ousted from Apple; and the 1998 unveiling of the iMac, after Jobs had returned triumphantly to run Apple. It’s a fairly ingenious, minimalist approach that draws on Sorkin’s experience as a playwright, and it allows for more focus than a typical cradle-to-grave biopic. But it also inherently leaves a lot out, and what it does include has to be crammed into three mornings out of Jobs’ entire life.

That means all of the figures that the movie deems important show up at every one of these product launches, pestering Jobs backstage like a Shakespeare character haunted by the ghosts of his past mistakes. From a professional standpoint, the movie focuses on easygoing Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), early Apple CEO and Jobs mentor John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Jobs’ longtime right-hand woman and apparently the only person capable of standing up to him.

Although the entire cast is strong, Winslet really carries the movie, especially since this version of Jobs is such an unrepentant ass. Hoffman is the sympathetic character who smooths over Jobs’ tirades against his colleagues, and, more importantly, helps mend the relationship between Jobs and his daughter Lisa, whom he spent years refusing to acknowledge. Sorkin’s dialogue crackles when it focuses on professionals trying to solve complex problems, but the script falters when it tries to understand Jobs as a person, and the focus on Lisa (at the expense of Jobs’ wife and three later children, who are never mentioned) eventually distracts from what makes Jobs a worthy subject of a movie in the first place.

Boyle largely just gets out of the way of Sorkin’s screenplay, keeping his visual flourishes to a minimum. Unlike David Fincher, who turned Sorkin’s script for The Social Network into a sweeping and scathing indictment of tech-nerd entitlement, Boyle doesn’t bring any greater scope to Steve Jobs. It’s never anything more than smart people having arguments in cramped rooms, and while some of those arguments are thrilling, the characters run out of new things to say long before the movie ends.

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