When “Jobs” opens on August 16, Ashton Kutcher will have officially won the sweepstakes to be the first person to portray Steve Jobs onscreen in the wake of the technology innovator’s death. This could turn out to be a serious example of the need to be careful what you wish for. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Steve Jobs is one of the most iconic figures of our time. He’s had an effect on nearly everyone with access to modern technology. He also displayed a wide spectrum of character traits — both positive and negative — in his interactions with the world around him. This means that everyone who sees this movie will have a personal conception of Steve Jobs and be ready to judge Kutcher’s performance against their mental construct.
Despite his physical resemblance to the tech giant, there has been some criticism of the decision to cast Kutcher. He’s perceived as being too lightweight to portray a figure who casts such a tremendous shadow over the culture. Naturally, we here at Word & Film thought this would be an excellent time to look back at how Ashton Kutcher got here and speculate on his ability to fill such enormous shoes.
Life 1: I Like the Cut of That Young Man’s Jib
“That ’70s Show” debuted fifteen years ago. Let’s just all take a second and deal with the fact that we’re only three years away from being as far from the start of “That ’70s Show” as “That ’70s Show” was from the decade it lovingly spoofed. Kutcher got his first big break playing Michael Kelso, the resident lovable idiot of the ensemble cast. Here’s another factoid about “That ’70s Show”: Ashton Kutcher is really good in it. He displayed excellent comic timing and imbued even Kelso’s most dimwitted and craven screw-ups with an undercurrent of sweetness that kept the character likeable.
Kutcher’s film roles during this time are typical fare for a young, good-looking sitcom star trying to establish a screen persona on his summer break. That is to say, they’re slight and forgivable. We doubt the immediate families of the people involved in the production of “My Boss’s Daughter” even remember it exists. Kutcher probably did more to bolster his visibility with his affable presence on late-night talk shows, where he always seemed completely at ease and eager to entertain. The real climax of this period of his career is, of course, “Punk’d.” The show was a sensation that brought huge celebrities down to earth while cushioning their fall, placed the show’s title firmly in the cultural lexicon, and made Kutcher bigger than he’d ever been. The best part of any episode was always the shots of Kutcher in his command center, rocking back and forth with uncontrollable and infectious glee at the mayhem he was causing.
Life 2: Please Stop
There was another fallout from “Punk’d” that we must mention: It allowed Kutcher to establish himself as a television producer. How did that work out, you ask? Well who among us can forget gathering around the cathode ray hearth with friends and family to bask in the glow of “Game Show In My Head,” “The Real Wedding Crashers,” or “Opportunity Knocks”? It turns out the answer is “everyone.” “Adventures in Hollyhood” serves only as a reminder that there was a time in our history when Three 6 Mafia had an Oscar and Martin Scorsese did not. A full-time film career in the wake of “That ’70s Show” ending in 2006 didn’t go much better. “The Guardian” feels like a role for a pre-artistic reinvention James Franco. “What Happens in Vegas” and “Killers” look like movies Matthew McConaughey would have passed on even in the depths of his “If There’s Food On Set and I Can Take My Shirt Off, I’ll Do It” phase.
Kutcher’s off-screen profile suffered a bit during this phase as well. He was the first person to amass one million Twitter followers, but he got headlines on several occasions for ill-considered tweets. The account is now handled by his management company. And let’s just say that even one photo of you and your (one-time) wife on a red carpet with her ex-husband in which you look like the offspring in the tableau is one too many.
Life 1/2: Jobs in Progress
“Arrested Development,” “Community,” and “Parks and Recreation” all have two things in common. First, they’re all constructed entirely of awesome. Second, even if they combined forces into some sort of comedy Voltron (piloted by Troy and Abed), they would probably still get murdered in the ratings by “Two and a Half Men.” Kutcher’s decision to join the ratings juggernaut makes perfect sense: He knows he can knock a sitcom role out of the park and he could demand to perform every scene naked while wearing a Viking helmet and juggling chainsaws and still be easier to work with than Charlie Sheen. It also gives him a solid and very lucrative base from which he can swing for the fences with something like “Jobs.”
The initial rumors about the other Steve Jobs movie — currently title “Steve Jobs” — were all about an Aaron Sorkin screenplay that examined the hero’s life through three real-time half-hour segments, each set before one of his signature product launches. That seems like a more formally interesting film than the standard “rise and fall and ultimate rise” structure of “Jobs,” but that may end up working in Kutcher’s favor. Biopics that hew to that standard template tend to live or die on their central performance. If “Jobs” is great, no one will be praising a screenplay or the efforts of a big-name director. It’ll all be on Kutcher. At only thirty-five, he’s already had enough ups and downs for several careers. It should be fascinating to see where he goes next.