The new biopic on Steve Jobs is a safe movie, doing nothing terribly right or majorly wrong. Unlike, say, ‘The Paperboy’
What people typically want to know about a movie is whether it’s good or bad, and the films about which it’s most difficult to say anything — even given the fact that what’s “good” for you needn’t be for anyone else — are the ones that are merely sit-through-able. The recent biopic, Jobs, is one such film. About all you can say about it is that you can sit through it. It chugs along with a basic kind of proficiency, the cinematic equivalent of a C-minus student.
Jobs did this. Jobs did that. He played the harmonica. He experimented with drugs. He came to India. He lied to a friend and paid him less than what he deserved. He threw out a pregnant girlfriend. He felt that a product should be a natural extension of the person who uses it. He walked like a primate, with a hunch. It’s a life reduced to a laundry list, with nothing that really shapes the story.
And yet, the sit-through-able part kicks in because these events are so close to us — there’s the tiny thrill of seeing the unfolding of not just history but recent history. We are involved, in a sense, with a film like Jobs, because we use the products he envisioned and we’ve read about this man in the papers, unlike, say, Capote or Lincoln, who are somewhat abstract figures, refracted to us through the prism of history rather than immediate experience.
It’s interesting to see how the personal computer came about. It’s interesting to see Steve Jobs obsess about fonts and design and watch him yell “The people here don’t know how to design shit.” It’s funny to hear someone say, “Nobody wants to buy a computer,” and to hear the PC described as a combination of typewriter and television set. As the film says, this is a second Industrial Revolution, something that continually makes us wonder how we managed without computers.
But the film’s most memorable line — and the line that ultimately proves why Jobs is nothing more than sit-through-able — comes about when Jobs says that great artists risk failure, “and if we’ve got to be great, we’ve got to risk it too.” The Social Network, another film about a techno-visionary, took risks. It plunged us, for instance, into geek jargon, not caring that some people may not get it.
But more importantly, it made it difficult for us to fully like or dislike the prickly, shut-off character at its centre.
The protagonist of Jobs is equally unlikable — at least, you wouldn’t want to be friends with him, and maybe only truly asocial people can pour their everything into creating new worlds — but watching the film you get the idea that he’s not all that bad. Walking out of The Social Network, you felt, Sad Little Bastard. Here, you’re meant to come out thinking, Poor Little Misunderstood Visionary Genius.
This desire to make an audience empathise with a protagonist is usually a sign that we’re not in for much risk-taking — and the films that thrill me are the ones that do not seek to feed you emotional cues by reaching out but stay stubbornly aloof, daring us to make sense of what’s happening on screen. Films that aren’t afraid to alienate. Films that aren’t overly concerned about good taste or subtlety or nuance or Oscar-worthiness (though these are all valuable in certain contexts).
Films where we see the filmmaker is being some kind of tightrope walker, and we watch to see if he’ll make it to other end. Films where we sense a struggle on screen, not between protagonist and antagonist but between what the director wanted to make and what he’s ended up making and, therefore, a film that divides audiences. Films, in short, like Lee Daniels’s The Paperboy.
Is it good or bad? Heaven knows. But it’s riveting. You cannot, for one second, take your eyes off the screen. Daniels, whose new film Lee Daniels’ The Butler is doing very well at the North American box office but which seems far more conservatively made, goes for broke with every scene, and his actors (Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, John Cusack, Nicole Kidman, Macy Gray, David Oyelowo) respond with unfettered glee.
There’s urination, sodomy, sex through suggestion, and a lot more that you wouldn’t find in a more tasteful film — but The Paperboy is alive. It’s a mess, but a glorious one, and as I watched it fairly recently, I kept thinking of it while faced with the timidity of Jobs. Put differently, there are films that come from a template and those that seem to have been designed on the fly. A visionary like Jobs, who broke every template, deserved a better movie — but at least, it’s sit-through-able.