In a scathing review published yesterday on Wired, Mat Honan panned iSteve, Funny Or Die’s 80-minute parody biopic of Steve Jobs, calling it “profoundly unfunny… worse in every way than a sidewalk dentist in Bangkok sans anesthesia.” His review is funny in its own right, though not intentionally; reading it, one gets the strong sense that Honan (a tech reporter) is an admirer of Steve Jobs and that part of what bothered him about iSteve was the film's lack of reverence for its subject.
It's a bit unfair to review iSteve as if it were a feature film — it is, and doesn’t pretend to be anything but, a cheap and extended sketch, a cheeky internet experiment. With two ostensibly authoritative blockbuster biopics of Steve Jobs on the way (one Ashton Kutcher hagiography and one Sorkin intensiography) Funny or Die's Ryan Perez decided to write a minimally-researched (and patently misleading), low budget SJ hagiography of his own, perhaps in an attempt to syphon off unknowing viewers. Perez wrote the film in five days, he says — I won’t speculate in what condition — finding all necessary research on Jobs’ Wikipedia page, but mostly making stuff up, and Funny or Die shot the clip in another six. This compact schedule and internet platform allowed iSteve to be the first SJ biopic out the gate. For what it is, iSteve is a remarkable achievement.
The humor of the film is only appreciable if one is in on (and okay with) its intentional shoddiness. The characters, except Jobs himself, are cast inappropriately; their make-up is preposterous. The dialogue, sometimes manically over-the-top, sometimes woefully banal, is an adept mockery of made-for-TV melodrama. Upon meeting Jobs, and instantly breaking into an extremely broad conversation about the future, fueled by “sugary sodas,” Steve Wozniak (played by Jorge Garcia of Lost) laments, “We already know everything that's gonna be invented; we've seen it on Star Trek; and now we're just sitting around, waiting for that Star Trek stuff to happen.” The head of Commodore Computers (Steve Tom, in an epic parody of the Arthur Jensen scene in Network) interrogates his Apple mole: “Have you spoken to his girlfriends?” “There are none.” “So he's some kind of queer!” “More like a ghost,” the Mole says, punctuated by a flush of Mozart (Amadeus is a constant reference).
The object of iSteve’s satire isn’t so much Jobs himself, but our deification of him. More broadly, the film parodies American biopics, particularly grandiose biopics of men whose lives are so jampacked with consequence that every scene must be stuffed with weighty pronouncements. The film squeezes an utmost of developments into every scene— Jobs conceiving his initial prototype on an LSD rant; Jobs collaborating with Bill Gates, sawing through motherboards; Jobs’ night with Gates’ wife (she gifts him his first turtleneck); Jobs' conception of the iPod at Woodstock '94, in dialogue with a demonic Billy Corgan; inventing Pixar in a meta-conversation with George Lucas about life and drama — it swings from anti-climax to over-climax.
Though it skips its protagonist’s youth — Jobs (played slyly by Justin Long) says he doesn’t remember it — the film remains a good deal too long, and drags considerably in the last third. Really, Funny or Die should bless us with a highlight reel of iSteve; its highs (I think in particular of the sensual encounter between Jobs and Melinda Gates), while not in any way enduring, are inspired and make it well worth a click-through. The projects’ primary virtues, though, are conceptual. The idea of a half-assed biopic in itself is good: the wiki/rumor-based biopic. One hopes that Ryan Perez and Funny or Die pursue this experiment further; iSteve hints at its potential.
Leon Dische Becker is a person trying to live in New York. Follow his Tumblr.