Lawrence Toppman

Real or fantastic, ‘Steve Jobs’ remains a mixed bag

Michael Fassbender as Steve in Jobs in “Steve Jobs.”
Michael Fassbender as Steve in Jobs in “Steve Jobs.” Universal Pictures

What are we to make of “Steve Jobs”?

It shoots forward like a bullet train yet travels in circles. It presents him as inhumane over many credible scenes and then tries to humanize him in the incredible finale, as if Napoleon had finally conquered Russia and decided to give all the peasants free bread.

It’s absurd as biography, not because of inaccuracy – as some of Jobs’ friends have said – but because writer Aaron Sorkin structures it as repetitive coincidences that defy belief.

It’s entertaining as fable, partly because of Michael Fassbender’s commanding performance, but what kind of fable? Until the last moments, we never understand this mystic who can’t design hardware or software but intuitively knows what consumers want.

Sorkin and director Danny Boyle adapted the authorized biography Walter Isaacson wrote while Jobs lived. (Jobs died of pancreatic cancer 19 days before it appeared in 2011.)

It depicts him as a control freak of almost unimaginable proportions and takes place on the days of three product launches: The Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT “black cube” computer four years later, and the iMac a decade after that.

Each time, he interacts improbably with the same people: belittled engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), snubbed Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), surrogate dad and Apple board chairman John Sculley (Jeff Daniels).

Former lover Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) keeps demanding money and insisting he acknowledge the daughter he fathered, whom the courts declared his. Marketing director Joanna Hoffman (the terrific Kate Winslet) calms him, smooths his way, calls him to account and gets him to behave responsibly.

He’s brilliant; he’s a jerk. He’s right about technology; he’s wrong about people. He must be suffered, presumably because he makes money for the company, yet he’s insufferable.

We’re on a merry-go-round of cutting-edge technology and cutting dialogue. And when he finally realizes he was wrong about something that would have been obvious to you and me at once, this epiphany of imperfection allows him to relate to his daughter. (That this apparently happened a decade earlier in Jobs’ life may not matter.)

Fassbender dominates the film with bitter eloquence. Daniels, Rogen and Stuhlbarg sound different notes – forceful, plaintive, pitiable – while singing the same tune. I couldn’t decide whether Waterston or her character was whiny, though Brennan was entitled to complain: Jobs gave her less than $1,000 a month for child support as a multimillionaire.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the film is that Steve Jobs never seems capable of inspiring anyone: He’s the smartest kid in the class and the biggest bully. Would Apple employees have been grudgingly loyal to such a guy, however rich he made them? That’s an unusual message for a movie to send – if “Steve Jobs” sends any message at all.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Steve Jobs’

1/2

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston.

Director: Danny Boyle.

Writer: Aaron Sorkin.

Length: 122 minutes.

Rating: R (language).

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