Tech icons Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs have inspired prestigious dramas like The Social Network and Steve Jobs. But for Mike Lazaridis, Doug Fregin, and Jim Balsillie, the minds behind the groundbreaking Blackberry, their rise and fall is the stuff of comedy. Or at least it is as presented by co-writer, director, and co-star Matt Johnson in the frenetic BlackBerry.
Making its North American Premiere at the SXSW Festival, BlackBerry is in good company with Tetris, another tech-centered biopic that turns potentially boring business matters into chuckle-rumbling bits. Beyond their surface similarities, both films succeed or fail because of their central cast.
What’s BlackBerry about?
In 1996, Doug (Johnson) and Mike (Jay Baruchel in a glistening silver wig) tumbled into a meeting that would change their lives forever. The inventing besties aren’t much to look at. Ever-bedecked in a sweatband, juvenile graphic tees, and gym shorts, Doug’s disdain for business as usual is as pungent as his raggedy headgear. Meanwhile, Mike, wearing geeky aviator glasses and a shirt the color of an old envelope, looks more like an unassuming bank clerk than tech’s next big star. It’s little surprise then that ball-busting exec Jim (Glenn Howerton shaved into a balding menace) can barely contain his repulsion. But a great idea is a great idea, and even with their clumsy pitch — “a cellphone and an email machine all in one thing” — it’s clear this is a great idea.
Despite their personality clashes and bouts of distrust, the Canadian trio turns this hybrid device into a whole new industry. BlackBerry charts their hardscrabble beginnings, their heady success, and then the outrageous manipulations — and crimes — committed to trying to keep them on top of the smartphone game once the iPhone arrives.
BlackBerry is a cautionary tale jolted with humor and heart.
Through the three interweaving arcs of Doug, Mike, and Jim, the script (co-written by Johnson and Matthew Miller) charts a stark tale of Goofus vs. Greed. Doug is the kind of guy who’ll pointedly quote Star Wars in a business pitch and fight passionately to preserve silly office traditions, like a plunger’s quirky placement and a weekly movie night — deadlines be damned! But as their company’s potential grows, Mike’s being lost — as Doug might put it — to the Dark Side.
Jim, a shark in a suit, is always on the move up the corporate ladder, and he won’t suffer fools or dawdlers. Where Johnson brings an almost obnoxious aw-shucks demeanor to Mike, Howerton channels the comic rage he’s shown throughout It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to a ruthless point, plunging it mercilessly into BlackBerry’s corporate culture. Sure, at first Mike pushes back to preserve his invention’s integrity and his employees’ loyalty. But money changes people. By the time BlackBerry hits its predictable mid-way movie makeover, Mike is looking sharper in more ways than one.
Glenn Howerton hits hilarity; Jay Baruchel struggles in a straight-man role.
Glenn Howerton as Jim Balsillie in “BlackBerry.”
Credit: IFC Films
Amid business meetings, snarled contract negotiations, and outright screaming matches, BlackBerry is less interested in the story of the phone than it is in the battle for Mike’s soul. Johnson casts himself and his guileless exuberance as the gawky angel on Mike’s shoulder, while Howerton is a capitalist devil. They both deliver performances that brush off the cobwebs of prestige biopics in favor of something funnier and fiercer. As a longtime Sunny fan, Howerton’s outbursts alone make BlackBerry worth watching. Unfortunately, Baruchel at its center fumbles.
A comedic actor who’s made his mark by playing lovable goofs, he’s oddly cast as a meek introvert who mumbles and emotes through tediously repressed expression. Baruchel is earnest in his portrayal, shedding the jovial smile and shouldering a stiff physicality that speaks to Mike’s internalized struggle. But he never quite clicks in the role, feeling like a drag amid warring dragons. Without punchlines or pluck, Baruchel is lost. And as his character is the emotional stakes of the movie, BlackBerry never quite comes together.
As a filmmaker, Johnson’s energy is infectious. Ahead of the SXSW premiere, he took to the stage in Doug’s costume, excitedly chattering to the audience about the cuts made to the film since its World Premiere at the Berlinale.(Opens in a new tab) His vaguely chaotic vibes infuse BlackBerry with jolting pacing, racing through the plot, montages, and archival footage with the help of acutely captured stock characters. For example, Michael Ironside crackles as a business bully, while Rich Sommer warmly shrugs as a humble yet ingenious nerd.
Even if you don’t know the story behind BlackBerry, which is based on the book Losing the Signal by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, you might well predict it, as tech icons in movies rarely get Hollywood happy endings. So, Johnson smartly wastes no time, moving swiftly — though not quite gracefully — through plot points, occasionally resting to relish in character moments and comeuppance, one of which drew cheers from the tech-savvy SXSW audience.
Though occasionally a bumpy ride, Johnson brings plenty of earnest nostalgia for this era to the movie with a soundtrack that boasts Joy Division, Moby, and Mark Morrison(Opens in a new tab), as well as prop elements like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II on VHS, and, of course, the cathartic click of keys on the titular device. Overall, the journey is more rollicking than rocky. While not amid this year’s most gut-busting comedies, BlackBerry manages to find the humor in the heartbreak of this true tale, delivering an ending that is simple yet satisfying.
BlackBerry made its World Premiere at SXSW 2023; a theatrical release will follow on May 12.
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