Does Ashton Kutcher capture Steve Jobs?

August 16, 2013

The new Steve Jobs biopic, “Jobs,” is out, and that means that we can finally answer a burning question: How is Ashton Kutcher’s Steve Jobs ?

Kutcher was, in the words of director Joshua Michael Stern, a “controversial” choice for the lead role as the Apple co-founder, given that the actor is best known as the lovable ditz, Kelso, from “That 70’s Show.” That role hardly puts one in mind of the “prickly but brilliant” reputation that Jobs, who died in 2011, built during his lifetime.

So, how did he do? My Washington Post colleague Michael Sullivan says Kutcher is “not a disaster” but noted in his review of the film that there’s still something intangible that Kutcher never manages to capture about Jobs’s persona, which so many people saw onstage during his famous Apple product keynotes.

Kutcher said that he studied for three months trying to get into the charismatic tech legend’s mind and body by watching documentaries and interviews to learn how to mimic Jobs’s physical movement and gestures. From that research, Kutcher wrote, he picked up telling details —for example, Jobs tended to count on his fingers by starting with his pinky. Kutcher also read books that Jobs had read, studied the artists and religious figures Jobs had studied and met with people who knew Jobs, such as DreamWorks chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg.

As for his physical appearance as Jobs, Kutcher has clearly done his homework. The likeness is spot on and extends beyond the miracles that hairdressers, makeup artists and wardrobe designers can produce. The only weakness is Kutcher’s voice, which doesn’t match that of the tech showman, but that lapse doesn’t have much effect on an otherwise strong portrayal.

But when it comes to the more difficult task of teasing out the emotions and motivations behind Jobs, it is clear that something is holding Kutcher back. And, judging by the actor’s comments about Jobs in press interviews, it seems like that his impediment could be his admiration for his subject.

It’s rarely easy to meet your heroes, and surely it’s even harder to be them. The film attempts to portray the warts and faults in Jobs’s personality amid a whirlwind tour of his early life. But Kutcher, who has made his own name as an investor in the technology world, seems to have fallen into what has been called Jobs’s “reality-distortion field,” interpreting him more as legend than as a man.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak picked up on that weakness in his comments on the movie, which he posted to Gizmodo. Wozniak said that Kutcher’s portrayal made Jobs appear to be more emotionally mature at a younger age.

“The movie ends pretty much where the great Jobs finally found product success (the iPod) and changed so many of our lives,” Wozniak wrote. “I'm grateful to Steve for his excellence in the i-era, and his contribution to my own life of enjoying great products, but this movie portrays him having had those skills in earlier times.”

Sullivan also notes that the film suffers from “milestone fatigue,” meaning that Kutcher didn’t get full rein to let his Jobs do much else than move from major event to major event, which can contribute to a perceived lionization of the Apple executive.

In an interview with The Post, director Joshua Michael Stern said he had some apprehension about making a film so soon after Jobs’s death -- exactly because it falls in the period between mourning and clear-eyed hindsight, when it’s still hard to take the measure of man.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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