My experience with Danny Boyle‘s Steve Jobs (Universal 10.9) has been both a charge and a puzzlement. I fell in love with Aaron Sorkin‘s jackhammer script when I read it last summer, but I didn’t like Boyle’s version as much when I saw it in Telluride. Sorkin’s dialogue had flown off the page and sunk into my system like pure cocaine. I had such a great time with it that I convinced myself that the film would come together perfectly if the director just gets out of the way and shoots it with top-tier actors. That’s what Boyle has more or less done, and yet somehow the infuriating, obnoxious dickishness of Steve Jobs’ character seemed much more palatable on the page than it does when performed by Michael Fassbender. And what felt pungent and drill-bitty in the script feels repetitive and hammered in the film.
It’s a month later and Steve Jobs is opening this Friday, and I feel I need to give it another shot at tonight’s all-media Arclight screening. Because I’ve been telling myself that the reason I wasn’t knocked out after seeing it in Telluride (I called it “more impressively conceived and poundingly ambitious than affecting or, truth be told, likable”) was because of my own blockage. Not Boyle’s or Fassbender’s fault, but mine. Because for all the difficulty, this is a movie about what genius often behaves like and feels like. About how life-changing things come about. And that’s not nothing. So what’s my problem?
The film is basically a dialogue-driven, three-chapter stage piece set during three launches of three Jobs products — the ’84 Macintosh, the ’88 NeXT cube and the ’98 iMac. A brave, pushy “talk opera” (Sasha Stone‘s term) or “verbal action film” (a guy at Universal suggested that one) or aggressive cine-theatre (my own). Obviously an audacious concept — again, loved it on the page — but when you boil it all down Steve Jobs is basically about a demanding, hyper-drive genius being an abrasive dick to his employees, friends and ex-partners for two hours, and especially being an astonishing world-class dick by refusing to admit to his daughter that he’s her biological dad. Really, seriously…what an asshole.
And after the first 45 minutes to an hour the tone of Steve Jobs becomes a bit strident and fatiguing — a torrent of argumentative, badgering jabbermouth about the joys of obstinacy and belligerence and trying to bend people to your immaculate will. It was fascinated by it, but I can’t honestly say I “enjoyed” it.
I didn’t know what to think or how to pull it together in my head, but here’s what I wrote just after the Telluride screening: “There’s really only one emotional-contact moment, an impulsive hug moment between Michael Fassbender‘s Jobs and his daughter Lisa, played as a nine year-old by Ripley Sobo. Okay, there are two but the second one (i.e., the last ten minutes between Jobs and his now 19 year-old daughter) doesn’t work as well. But that’s not the intent, of course.
“You have to take each film by its own scheme and determinations, and with a film as aggressively verbal and drill-bitty as Steve Jobs terms like ‘affecting’ and ‘likable’ are almost certainly beside the point. With a film like this you either you jump on the luge and submit to the speed and the brain-cell exhilaration…or you don’t. And what would be the damn point of not doing that?
“I jumped on, all right, and by the end of the two-hour Steve Jobs ride I felt tingly and throbbing and, yes, a bit drained and also a teeny bit sorry that I wasn’t as delighted as I’d expected to be. Which I fully concede is at least partly my fault as I’d fallen head-over-heels in love with Sorkin’s script two or three months ago. Dazzled by it, glad-to-be-alive contact highs, “this is what brilliance feels like,” etc. You see a certain movie in your head when you’re reading a highly charged, original-attitude script, and then you see the film’s version and it’s like, ‘Oh…well, okay, this is how they saw it.’
“It never bored me, it kept me on my toes, it delivers a kind of hammerhead contact high…but I wasn’t feeling that levitational thing. I was impressed big-time and I’ll never argue with anyone who might come along and say ‘you need to see it again.'” Which is why I’m going tonight.
A couple of interesting passages from Matt Singer’s Screencrush review:
(1) “By design, the movie is all setup and no payoff. The three-scene structure is undeniably unique; it’s also frustratingly repetitive and dramatically restrictive. With its claustrophobic atmosphere and slightly surreal structure, Steve Jobs feels a bit like a Silicon Valley Christmas Carol, with Fassbender as its miserly Scrooge grappling with admonishing ghosts from his past (Steve Woz), present (John Sculley), and future (Lisa). Some of these conversations are interesting. But after the first go-round, repeating them all two more times in minor variations yields few additional insights into Jobs’ life or philosophies.”
(2) “Jobs feels like a deliberate companion piece to Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network, another unconventional biopic about a tech genius who reshaped our world in his own warped image. But The Social Network did a better job of turning the tug-of-war over Facebook into a gripping thriller, and of getting inside the mind of its communicatively challenged protagonist. Even though Fassbender is in every single scene — and practically every single shot — he remains an impenetrable figure. Sorkin and Boyle never find the special tool they need to crack him open and get to his inner workings. Like the man it profiles, Steve Jobs is easy to admire and difficult to love.”