The American Biopic: Tried & Tested Vs Risk & Reward.

I recently watched two films about American giants, giants in their respective fields as well as giants that when we compare ourselves to them, we pale in comparison. Those films are Brian Helgeland’s 42 and Joshua Michael Stern’s jOBS, two vastly different films that depict the lives of baseball legend and the first African American, Major League Baseball player, Jackie Robinson and computer titan Steve Jobs, 

The two films are at extremes to each other, not only due to the fact Jobs and Robinson are vastly different people handling different challenges, different historical and social climates but because one of them is actually a nice person, a decent citizen who never thought backstabbing was the way to the top. The main extreme however is these two films construction, the way they tell their story with 42 being a rather conventional biopic, one working off a formula. jOBS on the other hand has a much more free flowing structure, one that rightly depicts the kind of free of all rules innovation Jobs was responsible for but it also leaves gaps so huge you could stick your head in them. This article will look at both routes and the benefit of thinking outside the box.

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jOBS (2013)

Directed by Joshua Michael Stern and Written by Matt Whiteley

 

The first thing you need to know about jOBS is it is not a pleasant story, its a slog to get through it but it contains two engrossing performances, the first by Ashton Kutcher as the titular Jobs, the other by Josh Gad who plays the co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak. If anything, the film is worth watching just to see these previously undervalued actors hitting their stride. Kutcher anchors you into the story, a story that is slowly being picked apart by the real Wozniak on the internet, something I personally didn’t care about because you can always poke holes in a biopic, it just depends on how hard you try. The problem I did have with jOBS was its script, it jumps from genius with stellar dialogue, clever transitions and compelling characters to empty storytelling with huge gaps, pointless flash forwards and unnecessary montages. This might be because of first time writer Whiteley but I’d assume if people knew the script wasn’t ready it wouldn’t be made, the legacy of Steve Jobs is just too important in terms of how the world works today. The reason Whiteley writes like this is to add a level of ambiguity to the character, allowing the viewer to decide if everything he goes through has had an influence, has taught him how not to be an asshole. It’s clever and ambitious storytelling that reminds me of the ending of Upstream Color, an experimental film I watched recently that ends suddenly and unexpectedly so to leave you with hundreds of thoughts swimming through your brain like the mind altering parasites the film is about. The film makes you think thanks to this new approach, one that I described in the title as The Risk & Reward approach. The problem is that jOBS while having the balls to go in a different direction takes too much risk and doesn’t get enough reward, a true shame really because Kutcher is just great (Never thought I would ever say that for his entire career). I did like jOBS though, there is no denying there is a story here, a dark and fearless one that tests the boundaries of the conventional biopic as it tries to coax other film-makers into taking the plunge and not stick to the set formula, to risk it all to come up with something fantastic and to collect that big reward. 

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42 (2013)

Written and Directed by Brian Helgeland

 

In stark contrast to jOBS, 42 is everything a stereotypical formula biopic is, it doesn’t flash back, it doesn’t try to leave anything to chance. 42 loathes ambiguity, the idea that anything can be left to interpretation means that Helgeland isn’t doing his job properly. The film is rigid and doesn’t compromise or take any kind of risk, it does however tell a story about a man who endured more than Steve Jobs ever did and did it gracefully. It’s a terrific story, so much so that you can ignore the fact it lacks an adventurous mind behind the camera. The script is clever, it doesn’t treat racism like other films does, it has a very real quality to it, especially when Jackie finds himself on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse from one of the other teams managers (A greasy, unpleasant yet excellent Alan Tudyk). You sympathise with Robinson because this is 2013 and racism still exists but not to this extent but you also sympathise because all he is doing is playing the game he loves. The film rarely takes off but its consistently great due to yet again a couple of brave performances from Chadwick Boseman as Jackie and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey the man who gives Robinson a chance as he adds him to the roster of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ford in particular raises this conventional film to new highs by bringing heart to a man with a gruff exterior, a world weary soul whose convictions are hidden behind his business aspirations, a part of him buried since his early years of coaching. This is Ford’s best performance in years and perhaps his best overall as he brings out subtle nuances in the films smartly written yet predictable dialogue. Boseman is good too with his Jackie being a formidable presence but a man none the less, not the godly icon Americans perceive him to be. The film ends with the usual Hollywood shmaltz but it feels earned, something Helgeland makes sure to do with the trials he throws at the man. The real disappointment of the film is the fact its filled with such generic side characters from T.R Knight’s Harold Parrott, Rickey’s dependable yet set in his ways assistant to Lucas Black’s Pee Wee Reese, the moral compass of the team, the heart and soul of the dug out. They never really shine past the redemptive moments the script gives them, a generic step towards acceptance that feels predictable and tastes sour due to its fake nature. Much like with jOBS, 42 relies on its leads and they bring charisma and gravitas in spades making this predictable, well thought out yet sugary sweet film a delight for the most part. Ultimately it’s a tried and tested routine thats worked for years and will do for many more to come but is it what we want?

 

Is Predictability A Vice?

The two films together make for an interesting question, can we really say that a film that tells its story and tells it well but in an expected way is a bad film? Does it lack the merit that a film like jOBS has, the merit of being original, thinking outside of the box. I know that when I finished jOBS I had a plethora of unanswered questions and an overall feeling of a film left incomplete but after a few hours of contemplation as I watched Rob Reiner’s classic The Sure Thing I realized it wasn’t really about jOBS the man but the person we perceived him to be. 42 on the other hand left me with nothing to wonder, nowhere to go from there but enjoy the warm glow of an uplifting story of struggle and optimism. Is that enough? I guess it’s really up to you to decide because truth be told I still don’t know.

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