THERE ARE TWO very distinct sides of Steve Jobs that any actor needs to understand before they can begin to get the man right. The first side is the salesman, the showman, the unctuous Stan-Lee-meets-Thomas-Edison hyperbolic charmer who can show you a hunk of plastic and glass and make you believe it can turn you into a better person. The second side is the genius who can take very complex computer-science concepts and translate them into something that the average American can understand. In the new biopic Jobs, Ashton Kutcher manages to nail one side of the Apple co-founder: He's a gifted con artist who sells himself as a willful visionary, and his aggressive desire to rope his marks into outlandish schemes (say, turning a garage-based startup into a fully functioning computer manufacturer) never come across as mean-spirited. But Kutcher can't convince us that this Jobs is especially smart. Instead, he deftly copies Jobs' mannerisms—his grandiose hand gestures, his pigeon-like walk, his tense stare—and hopes that the slavish mimicry will convince you to pay no attention to the fact that that special light in Jobs' eyes, the spark of genius, simply isn't there.
This lopsided, wobbly performance has unintended consequences. Without the sense that Jobs is a visionary, rather than just a man who latches onto smart people and milks them for every good idea they've got, the film's attempts to show the man's pettier side (he fires an employee in a heated argument about fonts) make him seem more bipolar than perfectionist. And it makes his failings as a man—abandoned by his own father, he abandons his first child without much of a second thought—seem arbitrary and small.
Which is weird, because the narrative of Jobs wants to convince us that he's an almost messianic figure. The film, which follows the creation of Apple through Jobs' eventual firing and return, feels like an extended infomercial for Apple products. By the time Apple design guru Jony Ive shows up at the end of the film to preach about Jobs' obsessive desire to create beautiful objects that simply work, the movie starts to feel like the credulous babbling that always happens onstage at the introduction of a new Apple product (words like "revolutionary" are used with much sincerity). It feels almost like breathless parody by the time the credits roll.
Too much of Jobs is pedestrian TV movie fare. The soundtrack is generic when it's not simply a jukebox of the obvious classic-rock staples ("House of the Rising Sun," some Dylan, a little REO Speedwagon). Kutcher is the best actor in the cast, including a sadly uninspired turn as a small-minded businessman by the typically great JK Simmons. And the script is dull and obvious. While it at least tries to parse some of Jobs' more unpleasant character traits, it keeps relying on clichés to carry emotional scenes, and nothing feels particularly new. The resulting movie feels like what would happen if The Social Network somehow received a traumatic head injury. It skips over several important moments in Jobs' biography, never mentioning, for instance, that he and Steve Wozniak (Josh Gad, giving your typical Hollywood adult nerd performance) started out their careers as phone phreaks, pirating calls from Ma Bell just to exercise their proto-hacker cred.
In the end, Jobs is nothing more than an unexceptional biopic about an exceptional man. You'd be better off renting the 1999 television movie Pirates of Silicon Valley starring Noah Wyle as Jobs if you want to see a dramatization of the man's particular blend of genius, pettiness, and classic American showmanship.