Have you noticed the glut of films about innovators? Those real life dramas have met with varying degrees of success in recent years with such titles as Air, The Social Network, Tetris, The Big Short, and The Founder. We seem fascinated by the process when that spark of genius ignites or when hubris takes over. Enter BlackBerry, the distinctly Canadian entry in this list of cautionary true stories, this time about a generation-defining invention told in a very smart, highly engaging way.
Think Silicon Valley meets The Office with harsher overhead lighting and you’ll get the picture. It’s 1996 in sleepy Waterloo, Ontario, where young Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) heads up a small software company called Research In Motion, abbreviated to R.I.M., which deliciously never merits a single comment nor should it for the humor of that to pay dividends for the film’s entire running time. Mike, a quintessential tech nerd, has a terribly incompetent yet loyal right-hand man Doug (Matt Johnson, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew Miller based on the novel Losing The Signal), and together they are running their company into the ground due to their terrible business sense. Lucky for them, they have invented the world’s first smartphone and just need someone who can sell it.
Enter Jim Balsillie (Glenn Howerton), the meanest corporate raider you will ever encounter and just the man for the R.I.M. job, if only Mike can come up with a prototype in time. Little do they know that Jim was fired from his last gig, hasn’t met a phone he hasn’t smashed, and figuratively is the poster child for toxic masculinity years before that phrase was coined. It’s a business deal and a contract forged in hell, but as a piece of movie entertainment, it’s made in heaven.
Jim, all suits, gold watches, and expensive cars, strong-arms himself into a co-C.E.O. position, bulldozes his way into Mike’s world of overgrown children who have grown accustomed to movie nights, toys and other childish ways and brings in people who can make their business work. Chief among them is Purdy, a gloriously intimidating Michael Ironside, as their new C.O.O., who can emasculate anyone before ever uttering a single word. Jim, however, doesn’t understand the tech of it all, leaving that up to Mike, but his failing is that he’s also not the most scrupulous of businessmen either, making less than legal decisions along the way as their BlackBerry starts to dominate the market.
It’s fun to revisit that time in the early 2000s when the world marveled at this phone with it’s clickety-clackety keyboard and small screen and thought that nothing could surpass it. It’s fun to watch Cary Elwes as a rival Palm Pilot executive attempt a hostile takeover, especially when we know the fates of both technologies. Remember those unwieldy stylos? You also never forget that the iPhone is just over the horizon waiting to tear this whole thing down.
Though it all, we get a trio of fantastic performances. Baruchel finds a touching vulnerability in Mike, a genius with a great idea, a man obsessed with the details who lacks the confidence to communicate his vision. He has a heart and you feel his struggle when it comes time to make cutthroat decisions such as leaving his friend out of an important pitch meeting. It’s a stunning, humane performance. Johnson, who with his cinematographer, Jared Saab, keeps things loose and handheld, often adopting an observational stance. His performance, however, is of the comic powerhouse variety one typically associates with Seth Rogen. He’s the stooge who clearly will never outgrow his headband but will always, always, always have his pal’s best interests in mind. We all need a Doug in our lives, but sometimes the Mikes of the world just can’t or don’t see it.
Finally, Howerton, best known for It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, is the real revelation here. Almost unrecognizable with his shaved head and thousand yard stare, he gives a galvanizing performance as the kind of guy you want in your corner as long as that corner is actually nowhere near your actual corner. He’s the scariest movie monster since Freddy Krueger yet doesn’t draw a drop of blood. He’s the type of character who’s scary because he simply lingers on in your imagination long after the memory of its title handheld device fades away. He, like BlackBerry itself, is, if I may invent a new word, funnerving.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
BlackBerry opens on Friday, May 12th in US theaters on limited release.
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