At the height of BlackBerry’s popularity, socialite celeb Paris Hilton always carried five of the smartphones with her. Each designated for a different task (business, friends, prank calls, etc.). Back then BlackBerry controlled 45% of the cell phone market. When Steve Jobs introduced the first-generation iPhone in 2007, many consumers (including myself) carried both smartphones. It was the beginning of the end for the trademark QWERTY keyboard device documented in the new film from writer, director, and costar Matt Johnson. The high-tech nerdy satire delivers loads of laughs with a side of empathy and features a terrific cast.
A movie is only as good as its villains and “BlackBerry” gives us three portrayed by Glenn Howerton (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), the legendary Michael Ironside, and the always fun Cary Elwes. Shot in the mockumentary style of “The Office” with awkward moments of silence, zoomed-in camera shots, and a voyeuristic quality, the film is loaded with movie references and quotes (Matt Johnson is a walking encyclopedia of cinema) and a great soundtrack that features Elastica, Joy Division, Mark Morrison, Moby, and The Strokes.
Based on the book “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry” by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, the film opens with footage of Arthur C. Clarke’s 1964 speech at the New York World’s Fair which he makes predictions of the future. His prophecy, “Men will no longer commute, they will communicate.” Jump ahead three decades where we find Mike Lazaridis (Jay Baruchel) and Douglas Fregin (Johnson), co-founders of the Waterloo, Ontario company Research in Motion (RIM) about to pitch their newest invention, PocketLink, a pager, a cell phone, and an email machine, all in one, to a potential investor.
The meeting tanks. You know you’re in trouble when part of your sales pitch is “It’s like The Force” and the person you’re talking to has never seen “Star Wars.” In this case, that person is Jim Balsillie (Howerton), a ruthless, Harvard-educated businessman, who loves to drop F-bombs. By far, Howerton is the film’s VIP, as he chews up the scenery going from flabbergasted to enraged in a millisecond. Balsillie muscles his way into becoming co-CEO of RIM alongside the socially awkward Lazaridis. An unrecognizable Jay Baruchel is terrific as the silver-haired soft-spoken Lazaridis, the brains behind RIM who provides a nice contrast to RIM’s shark-like Balsillie who handles the business side of the company.
It’s Balsillie’s tactics, that help BlackBerry become a multi-billion-dollar company. He instructs his sales staff to ditch the office for the country clubs, bars, and tennis courts where they are never seen without the smartphone in hand turning the BlackBerry into a status symbol. He also fends off the company from a hostile takeover by competitor US Robotics (known for the Palm Pilot PDA) led by Carl Yankowsi (Elwes). But it’s Lazaridis who convinces Bell Atlantic CEO John Woodman (Saul Rubinek) to partner with RIM after he shows them how they could have half a million devices working simultaneously as opposed to ten, the most Bell could get to work at once.
The supporting cast features heavyweight Michael Ironside who’s thrilled us over the years with unforgettable performances in “Scanners,” “Starship Troopers,” and “Total Recall,” as Charles Purdy who is hired by Balsillie to be RIM’s Chief Operating Officer to whip the office staff into shape. “I’m here to get this ship under control” states Purdy to Lazaridis. When one of the staff members tells Purdy “It’s bad luck to work on movie night,” he goes off on a tirade calling the techies “children” and then threatens to begin firing people until the room is left with “men, not little boys playing with their penises” (Johnson zooms in on the only female in the room which speaks volumes about the boy’s club mentality in the tech world). Ironside hasn’t lost his touch.
The film shows how BlackBerry quickly rose to dominate the cell phone market, and then came the moment when Steve Jobs introduces the iPhone in 2007. “Why would anybody want a phone without a keyboard?” asks Lazaridis as he watches the Apple demonstration with his staffers. As Jobs unveils a phone with a “giant screen” the crowd present at the demo erupts into applause while the RIM employees gaze in bewilderment. BlackBerry quickly crash and burned as the smartphone landscape changed forever.
It’s a tragic story and you can’t help but feel empathy for best friends and founders Mike Lazaridis and Douglas Fregin, as well as Jim Balsillie who goes from villain to antihero.
“BlackBerry” is a mixture of “The Social Network” and “The Office” co-written by Johnson and Matt Miller. The writing is sharp, the cast is outstanding, and the editing keeps the momentum high.
I met Matt Johnson ten years ago at The Victoria Texas Independent Film Festival (VTXIFF) while he was promoting his debut feature “The Dirties.” He was full of passion and enthusiasm, like the characters he portrays on screen. The film caught Kevin Smith’s attention, who helped get it into theatres. It was followed by the NASA moon landing hoax comedy “Operation Avalanche” in 2016 (guerilla-style filmmaking at its finest). “BlackBerry” marks Johnson’s evolution as a filmmaker as he ventures outside his usual suspects to deliver one of the funniest films of the year.
Now showing in theatres