'Jobs' (PG-13)

Jobs opens in 2001, when an already-gaunt Steve Jobs unveiled a hand-sized gadget called the iPod and promised it would revolutionize the music industry. The casting of Ashton Kutcher in the role of the co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc. was initially greeted by jeers of derision. But right from that opening scene, the actor proves he was up for the challenge, channeling Jobs’ familiar public persona and speech patterns to engaging effect.

Too bad the rest of the movie lets him down. Written by first-time Matt Whiteley and directed by Joshua Michael Stern (Swing Vote), Jobs works much better as a history of Apple than it does as a portrait of the genius who dreamed it up. After that opening scene, the movie flashes back to 1974, when Jobs was dropping out of college, dropping acid with his girlfriend, doodling in calligraphy and taking life-enlightening trips to India with his friend Daniel (Lukas Haas). In these early scenes, Jobs comes across as a man of obvious intelligence with a healthy disdain for conventional thinking who is still searching for a place to channel his energies. He’s ambitious and visionary: He just doesn’t have any idea what to do with himself.

Jobs tries working at Atari designing video games for awhile, but he has difficulty getting along with his co-workers, so he recruits his brainy pal Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Josh Gad) to create a game on their own (the result was the classic Breakout). But when he sees what Woz has been tinkering with in his spare time — a keyboard and monitor combination that allows you to see what you’re working on while you’re working on it — Jobs finds his calling. “This is the industrial revolution! It’s profound!” he exclaims, unaware of just how true his prediction will become.

Jobs is surprisingly thorough at depicting the rise and fall of Apple (Jobs picked the name because it stood for the fruit of creation, and it came before Atari in the phone book). Anyone who remembers Commodore computers and Compuserve will derive a retro kick from watching Jobs and his ragtag group of designers soldering circuit boards in his father’s garage, attracting an investor (Dermot Mulroney) who would facilitate mass production and unveiling the Apple II at the first West Coast Computer Fair, a machine that would launch the company’s future.

But Jobs fares far less well at getting under the man’s skin. His wildly temperamental mood swings, his bizarre reaction at the news that his girlfriend (Ahna O’Reilly) is pregnant, his increasingly short patience with his employees and the cruelty with which he treats the friends who were with him from the beginning all go unexplained. The intimation is that Jobs, like many other geniuses, might have suffered from some sort of mental disorder. And because the film has so much ground to cover, there are huge gaps in the narrative that beg for a little more detail (such as Jobs’ relationship with his daughter, who he refused to acknowledge for many years and then suddenly appears to be living with him, no explanation given).

Still, the mechanics of Apple as a business —  the failed product launches (such as the infamous Lisa computer) and the board’s gradual revolt and eventual coup d’etat of Jobs— are surprisingly compelling, if only because the company’s products are so prevalent around the world today. The upcoming big-budget adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Jobs, which is being written by Aaron Sorkin and will reportedly consist of only three 30-minute scenes shot in real time, may fare better at capturing the essence of the man. Jobs is technically proficient at recounting the late icon’s career, but it never manages to get inside his head — or his heart.

Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Josh Gad, Dermot Mulroney, Lukas Haas, Matthew Modine, J.K. Simmons, Ron Eldard, Victor Rasuk, Ahna O’Reilly, James Woods.

Director: Joshua Michael Stern.

Screenwriter: Matt Whiteley.

Producer: Mark Hulme.

An Open Road Films release. Running time: 122 minutes. Vulgar language, drug use, adult themes. Opens Friday Aug. 16 at area theaters.