- Director: Matt Johnson
- Writers: Matt Johnson, Matthew Miller
- Starring: Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson, Rich Sommer, Cary Elwes, Michael Ironside, SungWon Cho, Michelle Giroux
Director, co-writer, and star Matt Johnson does something simple but effective in the early-goings of his newest film BlackBerry: he shows the titular device’s first prototype being put together. With most films in its genre, the product is shown as almost perfect from the beginning, as if it was destined to be great from the beginning. Johnson portrays the painstaking and frantic process of its creator Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) Frankenstein-ing the BlackBerry prototype together from various electronics in the waning hours before its first pitch. The rest of the film doesn’t necessarily revolutionize similar films based on fictionalized retellings of corporate disruption, but it’s a small indication that Johnson is dedicated to what really matters within the story.
Johnson and co-screenwriter Matthew Miller inject a good amount of absurdity into the film, while still keeping it grounded in its emotional moments. Lazaridis and his longtime friend and business partner Doug Fregin (Johnson) begin the film as loveable dorks with a revolutionary idea but no business acumen or social skills.
Baruchel gets the job done as Mike but Johnson does fine work in front of the camera, portraying Doug as the friend who’s along for the ride, more prone to gab about They Live or video games than the ins and outs of their business. But it’s Glenn Howerton’s performance as Jim Balsillie who ultimately steals the film from the moment he appears. Balsillie steps in to initially sell BlackBerry to cell service providers, and to straighten up Mike’s company – on his first day, his desk is still in boxes and the phone line is constantly tied up by the internet dial-up. Howerton portrays Jim as an undeniable force of nature, a natural salesman who isn’t above some shady business tactics in order to get ahead in the blossoming cell phone sector.
The structure and content of BlackBerry isn’t terribly dissimilar to films like The Social Network, and the film is likely to suffer comparisons to crowd-pleasers from earlier this year like Air and Tetris. But Johnson’s film succeeds ahead of this year’s competition because it knows it’s ultimately a story of failure. BlackBerry dominated the market in its heyday – a closing title card reveals they claimed 45% of all cell phone users – but were slowly and effectively forced out by the advent of the iPhone. We’re not just watching a rags-to-riches story, but a story of how one company had it all and lost it in spectacular and compelling fashion.
The dynamic between Jim and Mike provides some of the film’s best dramatic moments, as Mike continues to sell his soul in order to see his vision come alive. Mike knows from the moment they begin working together that Jim will lead to his downfall, but people like Mike are an unfortunate necessity in the cutthroat tech world. Johnson directs BlackBerry with the frenetic energy necessary for a film with the subject matter. If you’re a fan of the fly-on-the-wall style in Succession or Parks & Recreation, you’ll feel at home in this film. (I personally don’t care for it most of the time, but I appreciate its usage enough here.) The film is just under two hours but zips by at an impressive pace.
Crucially, the film finds the right balance between not taking the material too seriously and depicting the events with technical accuracy. Perhaps just as importantly, the film treats its subjects with more depth than simple archetypes. Doug and the engineers are dorks, but they’re not buffoons. Jim is slimy, but he’s driven by a constant need to prove himself. Mike loves his creations but quickly gets caught up in the allure of being an innovator. BlackBerry the film may not disrupt the film world in the same way its namesake product did to tech, but it’s this dedication to nuance, along with some sharp performances, that make it exciting.
BlackBerry will be in theaters nationwide on May 12.
- Glenn Howerton would be an inspired Best Supporting Actor choice, but distributor IFC doesn’t have a great track record at mounting Oscar campaigns.